"U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan dismissed the part of the suit relating to Sturm's promotions but decided to consider his claims of stacked selection boards within the Navy.
" 'The pleadings contain specific and detailed factual allegations which suggest the Navy may be favoring certain religious groups over others,' Whelan wrote, 'causing an unconstitutional religious preference or an infringement upon plaintiff's rights to religious freedom.' "
This summer, on July 12, Laurie Goodstein wrote an article in the New York Times called "Evangelicals Are Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps." The article shows how the numbers of evangelical chaplains are increasing, while chaplains from mainline denominations are decreasing.
"Figures provided by the Air Force," wrote Goodstein, "show that from 1994 to 2005 the number of chaplains from many evangelical and Pentecostal churches rose, some doubling. For example, chaplains from the Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministries International increased to 10 from none. The Church of the Nazarene rose to 12 from 6.
"At the same time, the number of chaplains from the Roman Catholic Church declined to 94 from 167, and there were declines in more liberal, mainline Protestant churches: the United Church of Christ to 3 from 11, the United Methodist Church to 50 from 64.
"Other branches of the military did not make available similar statistics, but officials say they are seeing the same trend."
But in its final section, the article mentions a group of 50 evangelical chaplains that has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Navy for dismissing some of them and denying the promotions of others. One plaintiff in the suit, Lieutenant Commander David S. Wilder, "a 20-year Navy chaplain...said that his troubles began on Okinawa after the more senior Episcopal chaplain stepped in and interrupted his worship service. He says that that chaplain has blocked his promotion.
" 'There's a pecking order in the Navy chaplain corps,' Commander Wilder said, 'and at the very top is the Roman Catholics and just below them are the Episcopals and Lutherans. And if you're an evangelical nonliturgical Christian of some type, you're down on the bottom."
Father David Mitchell is a Catholic Navy chaplain working in Southern California. To allow him to speak freely about the alleged Navy discrimination against evangelical chaplains, he requests that his real name not be used in this story. Mitchell says he has spoken with several of the current evangelical litigants and has the impression that "their lawsuit is not really about discrimination so much as it is about the nature of the chaplain corps." A Catholic layman told Mitchell he got the same impression after attending a meeting on the East Coast for officials of various churches, where the litigants explained their lawsuit.
"Will the Chaplain Corps and chaplains," Mitchell writes to me by e-mail, "continue to respond to the expressed religious preferences of service members, or will they become actively evangelical? Will we take the religious affiliation of service members as a given and seek to provide for the free exercise of those religions, or will we see the military primarily as an opportunity for evangelization? The litigants deeply resent the policies of pluralism and inclusion that govern operation of the chaplain corps and by which they are evaluated as chaplains and officers. To them, evangelical Christianity is the normative American religion, and they see no reason why this should not be reflected in their functioning as chaplains, even at official command functions.
"To this," Mitchell writes, "I would add that there is certainly room for evangelization in the military, especially among the unchurched. It's a matter of style and timing. I have had many conversions to the Catholic faith. But this always has been as a result of the converts' initiatives."
The New York Times story describes the following approach to the issue by the current Air Force deputy chief of chaplains: "[Brigadier General Cecil Richardson]...said in an interview, 'We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.' The distinction, he said, is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel."
In fairness, the article also reports Richardson saying "that although his faith required him to evangelize, he would help accommodate the faiths of others. 'I am an Assemblies of God, pound-the-pulpit preacher, but I'll go to the ropes for the Wiccan,' he said, if that group wanted permission to celebrate a religious ritual."
Chaplain Marks says his duties never require him to preach to mixed groups anyway. "We have Jewish chaplains and lay leaders," he says. "We have Muslim chaplains. If a faith group out there is different than ours, we try to help them find a place to worship for themselves.
"Sometimes we do have ecumenical services and present a service we all participate in. But at that time, we're not trying to proselytize our different faiths. We're coming together to show a united chaplain force, and I think that speaks volumes to the type of ministry that's unique to an active-duty chaplain's work.
"When people ask us questions," Marks continues, "it sometimes opens up an opportunity to say, 'Have you given this some thought, have you given it a try?' But if a person comes into my office for counseling, I would never say, 'You wouldn't have these financial problems if you believe, like I do, in Jesus Christ.' " Instead, Marks says he would send the person to Fleet Family Services, where they can receive professional training in financial matters.
"But if they say something like, 'You know, chaplain, I don't know about this God thing, tell me your thoughts,' then I have an opportunity to tell them this is what I believe and why I believe it. Whether they choose to believe it or not, that's still on them. But the person has opened up the doors for that to happen."
Father Mitchell had no military experience before requesting the church to allow him to enter the chaplaincy in his early 40s. "In this," he writes, "I was greatly influenced by the military chaplains I had come to know over the years. To a man, they were positive and enthusiastic about their work. This was in marked contrast to the general run of priests I had encountered while giving retreats and hearing confessions. At the time of the 1991 Gulf War, there was a general call for volunteers, and several priest chaplains I knew contacted me. I asked permission but was sure my superiors would say no. Much to my surprise, they said yes."