U.S. House moves to protect rights of military chaplains

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WASHINGTON, D. C. — The House Armed Services Committee has approved language to protect the right of military chaplains to pray in accordance with their faith.

The provision, sponsored by two congressmen who are leaders on military issues—U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Walter Jones, R-N.C.—was inserted into the massive Department of Defense budget authorization bill.

It reads: "Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."

The sentence would apply to all branches of the military— including the service academies.

Jones said the right of chaplains to pray unhindered is under fire—especially evangelicals who are being forbidden to pray "in Jesus' name." The congressman said he got involved in this issue three years ago, when he met with three Navy chaplains at Camp Lejuene, a major Marine Corps base in his North Carolina district.

"They told me that they were restricted from praying in the name of Jesus Christ outside of the church," Jones said. "I started looking into this, and I'll tell you, over a three-year period of time, I have spoken to over a hundred chaplains. Everybody verified that they were being restricted."


Removed from post
He said one of the most egregious examples of censorship involves an Army chaplain in Iraq named Jonathan Stertzbach, an independent Baptist chaplain from Arizona. Stertzbach's company commander requested the chaplain pray over a fallen comrade whose body was about to be sent back to the U.S.

"He had to submit in writing his prayer to the divisional chaplain," Jones said. "The divisional chaplain struck through the words 'Jesus Christ' and sent it back. Stertzbach went to the company commander, who had asked him to pray and said, 'Major, I can't pray, because I cannot pray in the name of Jesus Christ.' The major, being a man of God, said, 'You are going to pray, and you're going to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.'"

Not long afterward, Stertzbach was removed from his chaplaincy. Several congressmen got involved in the matter.

"We wrote a letter to the inspector general asking for an investigation," Jones said, "Since that time, Stertzbach has been returned to the chapel in Iraq."

Jones said the impact of the restrictions on religious expression goes far beyond the military.

"I am of the belief that if we do not protect the First Amendment rights of people of faith—in the military and outside the military—I don't know what the moral future of this country is going to be," he said.

Dr. Billy Baugham, a retired Army chaplain and head of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers, said chaplains are being persecuted.

"A chaplain, when he gives a prayer, is supposed to be accepted as a bona fide member of the military community empowered to speak on matters of morality and religion, just as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer would be allowed to speak (legal) talk, or a doctor would talk medical talk," he said. "I've never heard a chaplain give an altar call during prayer."


Pluralism redefined
Until the late 1990s, Baugham said the understanding in the military concerning religion was always one of pluralism—the idea that, though there are differences in matters of religion and faith, it was in everyone's best interests to accommodate everyone else's faith.

"Everyone could do their thing," Baugham said. "Although we were different, everyone accepted and accommodated everyone else. The problem now is, 'pluralism' has been changed and redefined to be a means of restriction."

Baugham added that he thinks the Hunter-Jones language "will be helpful." The Department of Defense authorization bill must still be approved by the full House and Senate.

Congress, meanwhile, is pursuing other avenues to protect the rights of chaplains. Last week, Jones was joined by U.S. Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.; Mike McIntyre, D-N.C.; Todd Akin, R-Mo.; Mike Conaway, R-Texas and Jim Ryun, R-Kan., in a Capitol Hill news conference that called on President George W. Bush to issue an executive order as commander in chief.

The congressmen told Bush in a letter they were "gravely concerned" that the right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith was "in jeopardy" and chaplains were "now being instructed on what to say when they pray."

"For Christian chaplains, praying in the name of Jesus is a fundamental part of their belief and to suppress this form of expression would be a violation of religious freedom," they said in their letter to Bush.

"The current demand in the guidelines for so-called 'non-sectarian' prayers is merely a euphemism declaring that prayers will be acceptable only so long as they censor Christian beliefs."

This article originally appeared in CitizenLink. It is reprinted with permission. EP news