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Chaplain Prayer Provision Stricken From Military Bill

By Neela Banerjee, The New York Times, October 1, 2006

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 -- Congress removed a controversial provision in a military bill on Friday that would have permitted chaplains to offer sectarian prayer at mandatory nondenominational events. At the same time, lawmakers moved to rescind guidelines issued last year by the Air Force and Navy meant to curtail the risk of religious coercion and proselytizing within the ranks.

"The provisions in today’s bill represent a full step forward and a half step back," said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "We removed dangerous language undermining religious freedom and military effectiveness, but I am distressed that instead of moving forward with unequivocal religious tolerance in the military, we are reopening old loopholes that permitted some acts of coercion and proselytizing."

For several weeks, wrangling over the chaplain prayer provision had stalled the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that sets military spending levels. The House version of the bill introduced language that would have allowed for sectarian prayer, but the Senate version had no such provision.

Chaplains can pray according to the traditions of their faith at worship services, where attendance is voluntary. But they are also called upon to offer prayers at mandatory functions, like changes of command, banquets and speeches.

The provision’s backers -- among them Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee -- contended that Christian chaplains had long invoked Christ in nondenominational settings. The provision was championed by some evangelical chaplains and Christian groups, like Focus on the Family.

But it was opposed by the Pentagon, the National Association of Evangelicals and a dozen or so ecumenical groups. They argued that at mandatory events the longstanding custom had been to offer a nonsectarian prayer, for example, mentioning God rather than Christ. Those groups maintained that offering sectarian prayer would create division within the military.

Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, suggested that the issue of chaplain prayer be taken up in hearings at the next session of Congress.

Congress did hand some evangelicals a victory by abrogating the Air Force and Navy guidelines on religious expression. Those guidelines were issued in the wake of a 2004 scandal in the Air Force Academy, when some staff members, alumni and cadets accused evangelical Christians in leadership posts of aggressive proselytizing and discrimination. The Air Force guidelines were softened earlier this year to allow officers to discuss their religion with subordinates.

"We’re pleased with it, though we would have preferred the strong language that was proposed in the defense bill," said Billy Baugham, a retired Army chaplain and executive director of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, a consortium of nine denominations that sponsor members of the clergy in military chaplaincy. Of the guidelines, he said: "It puts us back to where we were. Now chaplains can go back to the business of being chaplains."

Other critics of the guidelines, which they saw as too lax on proselytizing, also welcomed their removal. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group, said it would give organizations like theirs a chance to push for stricter guidelines. The group is led by Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran and graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs who is Jewish. Mr. Weinstein said he had become concerned about religious proselytizing at the academy while his two sons were attending.

Spokesmen for the Air Force and the Navy said Friday that they had not had a chance to review Congress’ decision and so had no comment on eliminating the guidelines. Maj. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said, "We intend to comply with the law."

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