Bill would protect chaplains' prayers

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WASHINGTON — Do military chaplains have the right to pray in Jesus' name in ceremonies outside of chapel services? The military insists they do, but U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., is attempting to write that guarantee into federal law.

Shortly before Congress' summer recess, Jones introduced H.R. 6514, which would ensure chaplains the right to close a prayer outside of a religious service according to the dictates of the chaplain's conscience.

"For Christian chaplains, closing their prayers in the name of Jesus is a fundamental part of their beliefs," Jones said in a statement. "To suppress this form of expression would violate their religious freedom."

No hearings have been scheduled yet on the bill, which has attracted former presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, R.-Texas, and Rep. Christopher Smith, R.-N.J., as co-sponsors.

Jones said he regularly has received complaints from officers and chaplains about such restraints.

Among them is a Marine officer who recounted a chaplain's statement that he and others had been asked not to mention Christ. Jones' office quoted the Marine officer as saying, "This startles and frightens me that our faith is being infringed upon, even within our own military."

An army chaplain told Jones' office that he experienced opposition during his basic chaplain course when a Christian group leader ridiculed him for praying in Jesus' name and suggesting he would have an altar call during his services.

"Both of these things ... are part of my religious tradition," the chaplain said. "Additionally, [the leader] said, it is offensive to pray in the name of Jesus and is against Army policy to do so."

Jones' press secretary, Kathleen Joyce, said the representative prepared the legislation after attempts in 2006 failed to persuade President Bush to issue an executive order on the matter.

"Congressman Jones introduced H.R. 6514 as a next step," Joyce said. "The language of the bill is intentionally very narrow -- focusing on how chaplains may close their prayer."

However, Eileen Lainez, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense, told Baptist Press its policy regarding religious accommodation for personnel states that a basic principle of the nation is free exercise of religion.

"The Department of Defense does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services," Lainez said.

"The department respects (and supports by its policy) the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs."

While chaplains perform religious ceremonies in the context of their faith group and in accordance with those traditions, Lainez said they are often invited to participate in command-sponsored events. In such cases, there is an expectation that they will understand how to balance that privilege with the beliefs of those attending so "the event is as inclusive as possible," Lainez said.

The Air Force was the only military branch that responded to a request for comment. Although Capt. Michael Andrews termed it "inappropriate" to discuss complaints from other service chaplains, he said his branch never tells a chaplain how to pray, since that is the responsibility of the denomination or faith group.

"If the government were to tell a chaplain or any other clergyperson how to pray, that would be an establishment of religion, forbidden by the Constitution," Andrews said.

"We do, however, ask chaplains to be sensitive to the occasion and sensitive to the presence of people from other faith groups. If a chaplain should feel uncomfortable praying in an interfaith setting, he or she can decline to do so with no penalty whatsoever."

Despite the military's claims, leaders of two evangelical endorsing organizations said they regularly encounter problems with infringements on their chaplains' religious rights.

Billy Baugham, executive director of Associated Gospel Chaplains, said he conferred with Jones prior to the introduction of the legislation.

"I think it is needed," said Baugham, who said he has seen tears in the eyes of some field chaplains complaining about their treatment. "You won't get an admission from the powers that be, but there are pockets of frustration that exist. It [political correctness] is creeping back in increments."

Jim Ammerman, president of the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches (CFGC), said one Army chaplain in Iraq had coins made that resembled military coins that carry a crest, only with the question, "If you died today where would you go?" and some Scripture verses on the reverse side.

A lieutenant colonel ordered the chaplain to stop distributing the coins until the CFGC intervened and got a higher-ranking officer to declare the chaplain could evangelize anywhere, Ammerman said.

"We almost always have one or more that's being given a hard time because they believe the Bible and preach it," Ammerman said. "Commanders are scared somebody will pray in the name of Jesus and hurt their careers."

A former Army chaplain who encountered difficulties in Iraq for praying in Jesus' name called Jones' legislation a matter of First Amendment protection.

Jonathan Sterzbach, pastor of Clear Springs Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., said he hopes Jones' bill will guarantee every chaplain free exercise of religion, whether a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew.

"This was a widespread problem in the division I served in," said Sterzbach, whose temporary removal from his chapel in 2006 prompted calls from Jones for an investigation that led to his reinstatement.

During the investigation, Sterzback said he pointed out "numerous chaplains that were told, and forced, to pray generic prayers to unspecified deity and had to have pre-approved prayers."

As proof of the longstanding nature of the situation, Sterzbach supplied Baptist Press with a copy of a December 2005 letter from a former Army chief of chaplains, which discussed chaplains' training for working in a pluralistic environment.

"The very definition of pluralism suggests that we fetter our own needs to enhance the needs of others," the letter said. "In public ceremonies the needs of the audience may need to be considered over the needs of the chaplain who stands as a representative of the command."

While there are problems, any rank-and-file chaplain who complains about them is declared to not have "good discipline," Sterzbach said.

"How do you progress in a rank-and-file system and you're labeled a 'troublemaker?'" Sterzbach asked. "I was disappointed in the Chaplain Corps. My problem was not with the commanders. My problem was always with the supervising chaplains. They know better. They had the same training I did."