Navy prayer rule ignites a constitutional debate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 24 13:44:05 UTC 2006


Navy prayer rule ignites a constitutional debate
By Eric Pfeiffer

The Washington Times
Published March 23, 2006


A new Navy policy that encourages chaplains to use only "nonsectarian"
language outside of divine services has prompted criticism that regulating
prayer services violates the chaplains' First Amendment rights.  Under new
rules signed by Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter, chaplains of all
faiths in the Navy are asked to consider the views of their audience
before invoking specific religious beliefs in prayer.  "I'm very
disappointed with the secretary of the Navy," said Navy chaplain Lt.
Gordon James Klingenschmitt. "He's doing the opposite of what President
Bush wants."

    Navy spokesman Lt. William Marks says Lt. Klingenschmitt has
exaggerated the policy's reach.  "The only thing we ask is that chaplains
be inclusive of the people in their audience," Lt. Marks said.  "We've
never said they can't invoke Jesus in their prayers. You aren't going to
get into trouble for that."  Lt. Klingenschmitt is urging Mr. Bush to sign
an executive order to allow military chaplains to pray according to their
individual faith tradition. He said that if the president decides not to
sign such an order, he might sue the Navy.  The Navy policy appears to be
similar to that of the Air Force, which reads, "nondenominational,
inclusive prayer or a moment of silence may be appropriate for military

    The rule change completes an evolution of the Navy's official policy
toward religious language.  In 1998, former Chief of Navy Chaplains Byron
Holderby submitted a "memo of suggestion" that chaplains who wish to use
sectarian language withdraw from events such as evening prayer services
aboard Navy ships.  On Feb. 21, Mr. Winter quietly signed the regulation
making the suggestion official Navy policy.  Yesterday, Lt. Klingenschmitt
filed a "formal whistleblower complaint"  against Mr. Winter and Chief of
Navy Chaplains Rear Adm. Louis V.  Iasiello.

    The complaint was sent to Senate Armed Services Committee members
Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma
Republican. Lt. Klingenschmitt, a New York native, says Mrs. Clinton has
already written a letter to the Navy on his behalf.  Reps. Thomas M.
Reynolds, New York Republican, and Walter B. Jones, North Carolina
Republican, received copies of the complaint as well.  "We have been
working on Chaplain Klingenschmitt's behalf since last May," Reynolds
spokesman L.D. Platt said. "The congressman is not satisfied so far with
what the Navy has come back with."  Mr. Reynolds is the chaplain's

    Mr. Jones, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The
Washington Times this week that his office has been working with the
office of panel Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, to try to
rectify the situation.  "Mr. Hunter wants to help us with this issue," Mr.
Jones said.  He also said aides are working on language, which he hopes
Mr. Hunter will present to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in an
effort to resolve the problem administratively.  Mr. Jones said he won't
give up on the issue.

    "We're talking about the First Amendment rights of all chaplains."
In summer 2004, an optional worship service performed by Lt.
Klingenschmitt, described as a "Christian memorial service," on the USS
Anzio reportedly offended a minority of those in attendance.  "There are
350 men on my ship. Fifty attended the service -- including wives and
family, about 80 total," Lt. Klingenschmitt said.  After complaints from
some in attendance, Lt. Klingenschmitt received a "poor fitness" mark on
his permanent record which he is fighting to have removed.

    "They did a survey of the ship afterwards, and 84 percent of the crew
said they believe the chaplain cares for all denominations," Lt.
Klingenschmitt said. "Even though some people complained, I figured I had
an 84 percent approval rating."

    Rowan Scarborough and Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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