House Members Seek To Advance Sectarian Prayer At Military Events

The House of Representatives has weighed in on a contentious debate over religious freedom in the military, approving a rider to a defense appropriation bill that guarantees chaplains broad rights to use sectarian prayers.

During deliberations over a massive defense authorization bill May 3, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) slipped in the rider.

The action was a sop to the Religious Right. The military hasn’t asked for this change, but Religious Right leaders are furious over recent recommendations by military leaders, mindful of diversity in the ranks of the services, that chaplains use non-sectarian prayers when addressing diverse gatherings.

The Navy, for example, has issued guidelines asking chaplains to be mindful of religious diversity in an audience before using sectarian language.

The rider 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.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) attempted to modify the Hunter-Jones amendment by adding language calling on chaplains to demonstrate “sensitivity, respect and tolerance” for the beliefs of those to whom they minister. His measure was defeated on a near party-line vote, 26-31, with every Republican voting against it except for U.S. Rep. Can­dice Miller (R-Mich.).

Jones later defended the amendment he cosponsored with Hunter, telling The Washington Times, “This language helps to restore the privilege of that chaplain to pray as his faith calls on him to pray.”

In a May 9 letter to Rep. Israel, Rear Adm. Louis V. Iasiello, chief of the Navy chaplains, said the Hunter-Jones provision would “lead to confusion, compromise, and loss of credibility of religious ministry and chaplains’ services for the men and women of the sea services.”

Iasiello wrote that the Religious Right-backed provision flouts the “primary duties” of chaplains, which include facilitating religious needs of all service personnel. Iasiello notes the Navy’s guidelines allow chaplains to pray according to their consciences, but also calls on chaplains to ensure that they provide a “non-coercive, non-denominational spiritual presence” at service functions.

The Hunter-Jones provision “opens opportunity to drive wedges into the Chaplain Corps due to the emphasis it puts on each chaplain doing that which is right in his or her own eyes,” Iasiello wrote. “This proposed legislation will, in the end, marginalize chaplains and degrade their use of effectiveness to the crew and the commanding officer.”

Despite Iasiello’s concerns, the measure passed the full House May 11.

The ongoing furor over religion in the military is an outgrowth of efforts by Mikey Weinstein, an Americans United member in Albuquerque, N.M., whose son attends the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Weinstein’s son reported instances of anti-Semitism and an officially endorsed evangelical Christian bias at the Academy.

Americans United looked into the matter and issued a report backing up Weinstein’s claims. In response, the Air Force agreed to issue new guidelines governing religious activity.

Religious Right groups pounced im­mediately, insisting that the guidelines were an attempt to squelch religious freedom. The groups were especially angered over proposed guidelines for chaplains that reminded them to use non-sectarian prayer when addressing large audiences at mandatory events.

AU pointed out that a chaplain’s job is not to proselytize while working for the government. Chaplains facilitate the religious needs of service personnel. They are not expected to perform religious services outside of their faith tradition, but they must be mindful of religious pluralism and may be called on to help members of other faiths find space or equipment for worship.

In related developments:

• An evangelical Navy chaplain is being disciplined for appearing in his uniform at a Religious Right event outside the White House. Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt was protesting Navy guidelines on prayer. “Ten Command­ments” judge Roy Moore of Alabama was present at the protest.

The Navy says Klingenschmitt violated regulations by wearing his uniform to a political event. Rather than accept a reprimand, Klingenschmitt has insisted on a court martial.

• The Air Force is investigating whether a two-star general violated regulations by endorsing a “Christian” candidate for Congress in an e-mail. The Washington Post reported that Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. used his government e-mail account to send a fund-raising appeal on behalf of Republican candidate Bentley Rayburn, who is seeking a House seat in the area that includes Colorado Springs. The message went to more than 200 members of the 1976 class of the Air Force Academy. It was given to The Post by Weinstein.

Catton says he meant to send the message through his personal e-mail account.