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This is the joke among the Navy's evangelical chaplains. "Question: What do you have to do to get promoted in the U.S. Navy?

"Answer: If you're a Roman Catholic, you've got to be able to walk or chew gum.

"If you're High-Church Protestant -- say, Episcopalian -- you have to be able to walk and chew gum. If you're Low Church -- say, Baptist -- you have to be able to walk and chew gum on water."

Retired chaplain Commander Ronald G. Wilkins, who's telling the joke, laughs out loud. But the Oceanside resident and lifelong Baptist plans to file a lawsuit in San Diego's U.S. District Court that is no joke. The suit will accuse the Navy Chaplain Corps of shutting out the more populist lower-church branches of Christianity in favor of High-Church Catholics and Protestants. Such favoritism, Wilkins claims, contravenes the First Amendment requirement that "Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"If we do it," says Wilkins's lawyer, Gerald Hokstad, "it will be very big. We're taking on the United States government and the United States Navy. And if we win against the Chaplain Corps, it will be a first."

Until now, the 900-strong Chaplain Corps, serving the Navy and Marine Corps' 549,000 men and women, has been left in "benign neglect," Wilkins says, by the Navy establishment. "They think [the Chaplain Corps] can regulate itself fairly and share the influence of the different religions equitably. That's far from the case."

He spelled out his views recently in a letter to Senator John Glenn during confirmation hearings for the present chief of chaplains, Admiral A. Byron Holderby, a mainline Lutheran. "The monopoly is always a power bloc of Roman Catholics and various nonevangelical Protestants. The power bloc retains power through controlling the two flag [admiral] billets. The two admirals control promotions, assignments, evaluations, retentions, and funding; and [thereby] enforce compliance to their religious agendas and philosophies."

He says that the government has been dangerously skirting the First Amendment ever since 1977, when he claims New York's Cardinal John J. O'Connor, then a Chaplain Corps rear-admiral, persuaded the secretary of the Navy to "condone and implement policies designed for the Navy to uniquely favor the Roman Catholic church.... A Roman Catholic would always be one of the two chaplain flag officers (admirals)...and 40 percent of promotion board membership would always be Roman Catholic."

"Fact is, the leadership of the Navy has been a religious monopoly of Roman Catholic and various nonevangelical Protestants for a long time," says Wilkins. "I represent a large segment who haven't had a voice."

What particularly irks him is that the top jobs -- such as Naval Academy chaplain, director of the Navy chaplain school, or chairman of the Pacific and Atlantic fleets -- or the two admiral-level jobs of Chief and deputy Chief of the Chaplain Corps, go largely to Catholics and the liberal wings of such Protestant denominations as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans.

Much is based in the old, not-so-admirable traditions of the Navy, says Wilkins. "That's our track record in the Navy. It is the last to get on board. That was true with the racial things, the ethnic things -- and religions. We're very, very traditional, and what's caught the Navy chaplaincy flatfooted is that there's been a fairly significant religious revolution in America in the last 30 years."

"The Episcopalians dominated the Navy Chaplain Corps for 100 years, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s," agrees retired Navy Chaplain (Captain) George W. Linzey, 46, of Chula Vista, who is backing Wilkins's crusade. "Even the line [mainstream] officers could not make admiral unless they were Catholic, Episcopal, or Masons. But [the] Vietnam [War] changed several dynamics. Number one, in 1974, the Supreme Court said you don't have to go to church if you're in the military, which means that Naval Academy graduates were no longer only either Episcopal or Catholic."

But it was the '60s themselves, Linzey says, that really threatened the old order. "Free forms of worship, informal rather than formal worship, began to grow. Pentecostal, fundamentalist, Disciples of Christ, Baptist, and other charismatic denominations [caught on] like wildfire in the '60s and '70s, while the mainline churches began dying. Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc. So now you have young officers and young sailors filling the ranks of the military who are what we call low church. Evangelicals, Baptists, Independents, Pentecostals. [According to Department of Defense data] 54 percent of the entire Navy is Low-Church Protestant; 24 percent is Catholic; 14 percent is High-Church Protestant -- Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational -- Jewish and Muslim are 1 to 2 percent, and the rest are mainly the unchurched."

Despite this evidence of a sea change in its constituency, Wilkins says the Chaplain Corps brass hasn't budged. "It [sticks with] its very formal, very staid, very dignified General Protestant service, but the kids that we're bringing in [to the Navy] are from your free church and nonliturgical, and they don't relate to this. And that's shown by the frankly abysmal attendance in our chapels.

"Yet the policy of the Navy now is that the proper denominational balance [of chaplains] is thirds. One third Catholic, one third liturgical [High-Church Protestant], and the last third 'nonliturgical or other.' Jewish, Muslim, or any other. The Catholics' problem is they can't fill their 33 percent. They don't have enough priests. The Liturgicals can fill their third up with chaplains, but they don't have much constituency, so they like to preach to the Baptists. That target of thirds is unconstitutional. The government is favoring the liturgical [High-Church] faith with over-representation of chaplains. They're repressing the nonliturgical [Low-Church] faith by under-representing them and by not allowing them to have denominational services."

There are other troubling statistics: 8 of the 17 most influential jobs in the Chaplain Corps are held by High-Church Protestants. Five are held by Catholics and only four by Low-Church Protestants -- the evangelicals, who represent the majority.

What's more, says Linzey, nearly all admirals appointed chief of the Chaplain Corps have been High-Church Protestant: Episcopalian types. Of the four exceptions, three were Catholics, and only one has been Low-Church Protestant. And this was during Vietnam, Wilkins says, a time when the expected choices were suddenly eager to seek retirement.

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