God and the Navy

God and the Navy

A Navy chaplain's legal challenge has focused a spotlight on the military's rules regarding religious worship.

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The source:“Chaplains, Censorship, and the First Amendment” by Lt. Steven R. Obert, and “Crossing Swords: ‘Let Us Pray” by Lt. Gordon J. Klingenschmitt and Steven L. Smith, in Proceedings, Dec. 2006 and Jan. ­2007.

Nearly three years ago, Navy chaplain Gordon Klingen­schmitt, an Evangelical Episcopal priest, concluded a fiery Christian funeral service on the cruiser USS Anzio with a prayer “in Jesus’ name.” A quarter of the mour­ners “hated the sermon,” he says, which was optional but widely attended. Such a memorial cere­mony would pass without comment in civilian life, but it was a poor career move in the Navy. Klingen­schmitt was reassigned, given a negative perfor­mance review, and investigated. A year later, after he conducted an 18-day hunger strike in front of the White House, he was ­court-­martialed for disobeying an order not to wear his uniform during a political protest. Dismissed from the service in March, he is pursuing a doctorate in theology.

Klingenschmitt is point man in a ­long-­simmering dispute over the role of a military religious corps in a secular government. He contends that the Navy is unconstitutionally requiring its chaplains to pray to a “government god.” There are three choices, he writes: The Navy can impose “totalitarian atheism” by banning public prayer in its ranks; it can require chaplains to adhere to “totalitarian pluralism” and “water down their prayers” to avoid naming the deity; or it can follow his preferred course of “democratic diversity” by allowing chaplains to take turns expressing differing ­faiths.

Chaplains must obey civilian bishops or other religious superiors in sacramental matters, Klingen­schmitt writes, rather than their military superiors. His sup­porters point out that evan­gelical religious faith essentially com­mands the acknow­ledg­ment of Jesus. They por­tray the lieutenant as caught between his re­ligion and his job, facing forfeiture of his military pension and eviction from Navy hous­ing. “I was literally con­victed of ‘wor­shiping in public’ in uni­form,” Klingen­schmitt ­writes.

But to some fellow chaplains, the affair seems less a matter of religious oppression than a case of pressing a sectarian agen­da. It is generally acknowledged that chaplains can pray to the god of their choice in religious services, but conflicts come when chaplains preside over services or ceremonies attended by people of many faiths. Steven L. Smith, a retired Navy chaplain and a Southern Baptist, writes that his decision to use the “inclusive language” sought by the Navy stemmed from his effort to think of “the good of the com­munity, not just the individual.”

For many in the Navy, the fate of Klingenschmitt is “less important than the debate it has sparked about the role of the military chaplain” when ministering to sailors of different faiths, writes Lt. Steven R. Obert, a submariner who is attending the George Washington University Law ­School.

The Navy, with a tradition of prayer at sea that goes back to the 18th century, bases the legitimacy of its chaplain corps on the clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution that says that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the “free exercise” of religion. Because sailors are required to serve away from their hometowns and churches, chaplains are needed to facilitate their “free exercise,” Obert writes. At the same time, the Constitution also prohibits any “establishment” of religion, a provision that has been used to regulate prayer in public schools and remove religious symbols from ­courthouses.

The Klingenschmitt affair is unlikely to settle the issue. A federal appeals court dismissed a suit in 1985 that sought to eliminate the Army Chaplain Corps, saying that although there was strong justification under the establishment clause for abolishing the corps, chaplains were necessary for the free exercise of religion by troops serving in remote locations. But since the military chaplaincy passed constitu­tional muster 22 years ago, new issues have arisen and the ranks of the chaplaincy have changed. Once chaplains were mostly Catholics and mainline Protestants; today there are many more evangelicals. Kling­en­schmitt has become a cause célèbre on Christian television and the Internet. The Air Force Acad­emy has been roiled by allegations that military clergy were engaged in inappropriate proselytization, and 75 chaplains have sued the Navy
on personnel grounds. These evangelicals have filed a ­class-­action suit, claiming that they have been passed over for promotion because of their ­faith.

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