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Prayer debate puts military chaplains on the spot

By Kate Wiltrout, The Virginian-Pilot, (Hampton Roads, Virginia), September 23, 2006

NORFOLK - Military chaplains usually work outside the public eye - leading worship services, organizing volunteer efforts and offering spiritual guidance. But now, as Congress debates regulations on how they pray, chaplains have been pushed into the political spotlight.

The debate comes on the heels of an outspoken Navy chaplain's conviction last week in Norfolk for wearing his uniform at a March news conference outside the White House, where he prayed in the name of Jesus.

Disagreement about how chaplains pray outside the pulpit - addressing diverse audiences at secular events such as ship christenings - has stalled passage of the annual defense authorization bill.

The House version of the bill would allow chaplains to lead prayers as they see fit in any situation. U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., head of the Armed Services Committee, opposes that change until there's more debate.

The Pentagon is fighting the House language, arguing that allowing chaplains to pray any way they want, in any setting, could alienate troops.

"This provision could marginalize chaplains who, in exercising their conscience, generate discomfort" at events that troops are required to attend, the Defense Department wrote in an appeal to Congress last month. "Such erosion of unit cohesion is avoided by the military's present insistence on inclusive prayer at interfaith gatherings."

Even if Congress strikes a temporary compromise on the issue to pass the bill, both sides acknowledge a bigger battle may loom. Warner has proposed public hearings early next year if the House agrees to delete the language now.

Caught in the middle are 2,800 active-duty chaplains with a delicate job: serving God and country without violating their oaths to either. Chaplains are ordained clergy representing a specific faith tradition, but they're also commissioned officers who are sworn to obey orders and expected to minister to a diverse audience.

Other religious controversies have dogged the military over the years. Since 1999, the Navy has faced class-action lawsuits alleging that it stymied the promotions of certain chaplains and established denominational preferences with the chaplain corps. The suits are pending.

The Air Force also is being sued for allowing evangelical Christian chaplains and officers at the Air Force Academy to proselytize among students. In 2004, a Pentagon task force cleared the school of "overt religious discrimination" but did note insensitivity toward non-Christian cadets.

Recent regulations issued by the Air Force and Navy have reinforced religious tolerance.

"Public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business," according to the Air Force's current guidelines.

In February, Navy Secretary Donald Winter issued an instruction that "every religious ministry professional must be willing to function in a pluralistic environment in the military, where diverse religious traditions exist side-by-side with tolerance and respect."

Except in extraordinary circumstances outside of religious services, the regulations say, chaplains' prayers should be nonsectarian in nature.

To U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a Republican who represents Virginia's 4th District, those regulations cross the line into ensuring freedom from religion, not freedom of religion.

"There is clearly a well-funded, well-orchestrated movement that's anti-prayer and anti-religious in the military and in society," said Forbes, founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, said this week in a telephone interview.

He thinks the existing regulations have had a "chilling effect" on chaplains by giving commanders the right to edit chaplains' public prayers.

The House bill states that "each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."

At sea, where Navy chaplains offer a prayer over the ship's intercom system each night, the proposal would allow them to invoke the name of Jesus - or Muhammad, or Buddha, or Yahweh.

Gary Pollitt, a minister in the United Church of Christ and a retired Navy captain and chaplain, said chaplains agree to minister to soldiers and sailors of all faiths when they join the chaplain corps.

"It just astonishes me that everyone is so willing to believe there is an organized conspiracy against certain faith groups in the military," said Pollitt, the executive director of the Military Chaplains Association of the U.S.A.

Chaplains who won't lead a diverse audience in prayer without invoking the name of a specific deity have the option of resigning their commission, he said.

Pollitt believes congressional intervention in military prayer policy could cause its own set of problems. Most chaplains wouldn't use the proposed legislation as license to offer prayers that scold, criticize or threaten people of different beliefs - but some might, he said.

If the House language becomes law, Pollitt said, "get ready for new controversies over the place of evangelism in the military."

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