"It begs the question," says Linzey. "Why has there only been one Low-Church Chief of Chaplains in the entire 225-year history of the Navy Chaplain Corps?"
For Wilkins, this lawsuit is to complete unfinished business. He feels he knows more than most Navy chaplains what the "kids" feel. He started off at 17 as a sailor and was one of 22 selected from among 12,000 applicants to receive a commission. As a lieutenant he spent a hellish year in Apocalypse Now-style patrols on the rivers in Vietnam and only then became a chaplain. That's when he ran up against the High-Church mindset.
"Vietnam probably made my commitment more intense. My problem is I never could keep my mouth shut. I've always seen it from the consumers' point of view. When I came in as a chaplain, I kept saying, 'We really need to address my situation, [services for] these Baptist kids.' And that turned out to be the wrong thing to say."
Wilkins also loudly objected to the fact that all Protestants were expected to share preachers of different faiths, while Roman Catholics always had their own church and preachers.
He was twice passed over by selection boards. Twelve years ago, he filed suit against them in San Diego's U.S. federal district court.
That 1985 suit, Wilkins says, brought out everything that was and is wrong with the Navy Chaplain Corps. "Here we have the government, which constitutionally cannot prefer one religion over another, yet [mandates] a Catholic service everywhere and a Baptist service nowhere. You will not find, in any command's religious program in the Department of the Navy, a Sunday morning Baptist denominational worship service.
"I had a senior chaplain who thought it was his job and his responsibility -- and this was not unique to him -- to make sure that these new chaplains [like me] had the right ecumenical attitude. And here I'm saying again and again that we should be having an [exclusively] Baptist service for all these kids.
"At the end of 1985 I was supposed to be thrown out of the Navy. December 31, midnight," he says with a laugh. But instead of accepting his fate, Wilkins lodged his complaint with San Diego's federal Judge Gordon Thompson and claimed that because the then chief of the Chaplain Corps, John O'Connor, had permanently appointed two Catholics on the five-officer chaplain selection board by agreement with the secretary of the Navy, this constituted "excessive entanglement" by the government. "I was twice passed over by an unconstitutional board," he told Judge Thompson. "The government was excessively [favoring] the Catholic church.
"This happened less than 24 hours before I was to be tossed out of the Navy. Luckily, Judge Thompson [quickly] took the approach that the government was 'excessively entangled.' "
So instead of tossing him out, the Navy asked Wilkins for a deal. If he would drop his suit, they would reduce the number of Catholics on the selection board from two to one and "look at" the custom of always having a Catholic admiral as one of the top two "flag officer" jobs.
Wilkins was not appeased. "Why is a government giving the Catholic church a 'quota' of one flag officer? They're not doing that for the Baptists," he says.
But because he couldn't afford to go on, Wilkins accepted the Navy's deal. He dropped the suit, was reinstated, promoted, and sent off to the East Coast.
He was later sent to Cuba's Guantanamo Bay and continued preaching in the Baptists' "expository style," based solidly on the Bible, at a chapel across the bay on the far side of the base. That's when he says his troubles returned. He was too popular. He started drawing too many sailors to his chapel. "We went from about a dozen people up to around 100, and that was unacceptable to the command chaplain. So he broke up my service. He emptied it out.... I went to the commanding officer and requested to have a Sunday-morning Bible church service for these people. That thing became bigger than the main service. And I got thrown off the island. Sent to a reserve base."
Soon after, Wilkins was handed "involuntary early retirement."
He says he's not the only evangelical chaplain to be treated this way. "This protracted persecution of evangelical worshippers ...demonstrates the Navy chaplaincy's anti-evangelical agenda and its illegal perpetuation of ecumenism through its own peculiar General Protestant religion," he wrote to Senator Glenn.
Now Wilkins has decided to fight one more battle. "I have never had peace about [my 1985 case]. I still am concerned for 'Snuffy' out in the middle of the ocean, who wants to know what the Bible says. I want these Baptist kids, these evangelical kids to have some place to go.... The General Protestant [shared] approach used to be fine, but time has passed us by. It just has. The Bible is the real Mason-Dixon line. Southerners hold the Bible up the way Catholics hold the Virgin Mary. Kind of untouchable. I just want customer satisfaction. That's guaranteed in the Constitution. And I don't think the court will accept what's going on. I think the Lord wants me to do something. Mainly, I want the selection boards to be manned by line [mainstream] officers, not chaplains."
"[Our theme will be] the way the system is run allows certain religions to gain power or advantage over others," says Wilkins's lawyer Hokstad. "It could work the other way too: it could be [Wilkins's] religion that somehow got in there and got the power. That's not right either. If you're a religious chaplain, and you pick another chaplain, wouldn't you have a natural bias to your own religion? That's human nature. In order to eliminate that problem, promotion should be from neutral persons, not biased religious persons. Which is how other branches of the service do it."
And yes, says Hokstad, they'll be suing the Navy not just for injunctive relief to get them to change their policies, but also for money. "Money is the only thing that gets people's attention in our society," he says.