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"If they don't reinstate me, that's a victory too, because my reward is in heaven."

Ex-chaplain still defiant He was kicked out of the Navy, but Klingenschmitt says he's the winner in his fight over religion

By Bill Geroux, The Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), March 17, 2007

Former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt once preached at a sailor's funeral that if a man did not believe in Jesus, "God's wrath remains on him."

The ship's captain complained that his words could offend sailors of other faiths who had come to pay their respects to the dead man. Klingenschmitt was unrepentant.

He could not worry about offending the people at the funeral, he said in a recent interview, because he was trying to save them. "It is the highest act of love I can show to my Buddhist or Muslim friends to tell them the truth."

Klingenschmitt is out of the Navy now -- kicked out this month after a series of clashes, including a court-martial for disobeying an order not to wear his uniform to a news conference protesting the military's prayer policies. Earlier, he staged a hunger strike outside the White House.

He declared victory after his ouster, saying he sacrificed his military career to free other Navy chaplains to "preach in the name of Jesus." He said he is now a sought-after speaker for talk shows and conservative Christian gatherings.

"I need a second career," he said, "and I think for me it could be public speaking."

But a spokesman for a national chaplain's group said chaplains did not see Klingenschmitt as their champion.

"This looks like a religious issue to some people, but really it's a personnel issue," said Jack Williamson, executive director of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. "There are not a lot of guys [in the chaplain corps] like him."

Klingenschmitt, 38, an earnest-looking man with a round face and thinning hair, became a Navy chaplain four years ago after serving 11 years with the Air Force, overseeing intercontinental ballistic missiles in underground silos in North Dakota. He said he accepted a demotion and pay cut to join the chaplain corps as a Navy lieutenant.

Almost immediately, his type of zeal frustrated his superiors at Norfolk Naval Station. Testifying at his court-martial, his former senior chaplain called Klingenschmitt, "untruthful, unethical, insubordinate, contemptuous of authority, unteachable . . . a totally frustrating, independent operator."

While on leave in December 2005, Klingenschmitt staged an 18-day hunger strike outside the White House, demanding the right to pray in Jesus' name. He declared victory after his commanding officer in Norfolk told him he could pray as he wished in uniform as long as it was at "a bona fide worship service."

Like the U.S. military as a whole, the Navy has long contained sailors and officers of a wide range of religious views, and regulations encourage chaplains to respect the diverse views, particularly at public events such as funerals or change-of-command ceremonies, said Lt. Tommy Crosby, a spokesman for the Navy in Washington.

But in February 2006, in response to complaints about evangelical Christian chaplains proselytizing recruits at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Air Force and Navy adopted a new regulation requiring chaplains to offer nondenominational prayers at mandatory Navy events.

Conservative Christian groups across the nation protested and lobbied Congress to do something. Klingenschmitt said he made it his goal to challenge the regulation.

On March 30 last year, after being ordered not to appear in uniform at media events, he appeared in uniform at a news conference outside the White House. The featured speaker was former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who gained a following in 2003 by disobeying a court order to remove his monument to the Ten Commandments from the courthouse rotunda.

Moore stood at a podium and lambasted the new regulations, pointing out Klingenschmitt, who stood nearby. Klingenschmitt did not speak to reporters but read a prayer. Prosecutors said he also handed out fliers comparing himself to black civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks.

The Navy quickly charged Klingenschmitt with a misdemeanor count of disobeying an order not to wear his uniform at media events. His boss offered him a nonjudicial hearing before the captain, but Klingenschmitt chose a court-martial so he could air his argument that he was being persecuted for his faith. The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based public-interest law firm, provided a lawyer.

A Navy prosecutor said the case was simply about a Naval officer disobeying a clear order. The jury -- five Naval officers -- deliberated one hour and 20 minutes before convicting Klingenschmitt and recommending his pay be docked.

The national lobbying campaign prodded Congress last fall to order the Navy to rescind the eight-month-old regulation requiring nonsectarian public prayers. U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th, who pressed the issue in the House of Representatives, said he had heard from chaplains in the Army, Navy and Air Force that the regulation was unneeded and had a "chilling effect."

Forbes said in an interview last week that he became involved in the issue because he thinks the complaints at the Air Force Academy were overblown and that the Air Force and Navy overreacted. He said the Navy's old prayer policy regarding chaplains had worked well for almost 200 years.

Forbes said he never considered Klingenschmitt's case part of the debate over chaplain prayer, especially since Klingenschmitt apparently disobeyed an order.

Klingenschmitt declared victory again last week and said he would change nothing. He acknowledged it was tough to be dismissed from the Navy, four years short of a precious 20-year retirement pension. He has filed a federal lawsuit seeking reinstatement, he said, but "if they don't reinstate me, that's a victory too, because my reward is in heaven."

In the meantime, he said, he was getting ready to catch a plane to deliver a prayer before the Kentucky state legislature.

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