EDITOR’S NOTE:This is Part I of a three-part series examining the legal conflicts involving the Navy Chaplain Corps. Many evangelicals say the Navy prefers Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants over them, discriminates against them in promotions and even tries to tell them what to preach. The Navy denies the claims. Now a class-action suit representing about 2,000 present and former chaplains threatens to overhaul naval promotions and cost the sea service tens of millions of dollars in back pay. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to examine the complaints early next year.

In the song "Cross Road Blues," Mississippi Delta guitar legend Robert Johnson sings of a lonely intersection, a darkening sky and a coming date with fate:

I went to the crossroadfell down on my kneesI went to the crossroadfell down on my kneesasked the Lord above‘Have mercy nowsave poor Bob, if you please.’

The reverend who inadvertently started a revolution inside the Navy Chaplain Corps calls the crossroads the place where he found out what kind of man he was.

"Nobody volunteers to go to the crossroads," said Stan Aufderheide, a retired chaplain and naval commander. "God puts you there. And it’s not a comfortable place to be."

He was talking of his struggle for that commander pin. Aufderheide, last stationed at Allied Forces Southern Europe in Naples, Italy, fought for four years because he thought promotion boards failing to select him for commander were unfair. He sported 15 years of glowing fitness reports.

Aufderheide thought something was up: An evangelically minded minister with the conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, he saw four chaplains with the arguably more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America receive promotion. No chaplains of his faith group did. The flag officer who presided over the year’s selection board was an ELCA chaplain himself.

Little did Aufderheide know, but his case would later provoke other Navy preachers to form a legal front to overhaul the Navy chaplaincy and possibly cost it millions of dollars. It would help inspire the government to change federal law to make it more difficult to sue over promotions. It would galvanize religious conservatives across the United States and result in calls for congressional hearings. And in the course of their crusade, the Navy chaplains would also unearth allegations of promotion fraud, sex scandal and widespread misconduct among those whom sailors are told to trust the most.

The result is war in the Chaplain Corps.

The battle begins

A naval equal opportunity officer looked into the Aufderheide case and concluded that the sea service may have, indeed, discriminated against him. Then came more ambiguous findings by a Navy Inspector General probe, followed by another investigation by the Defense Department Inspector General. Eventually, then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig granted Aufderheide two special promotion boards and by March 2000, the Navy made him a commander, complete with back pay. He retired shortly after.

"I had four years of basically hell," Aufderheide told Stars and Stripes recently from his church in Portland, Ore. "It was a great travail to fight them. They ruined my name, the Chaplain Corps did."

He said the military painted his achievements and connections with leaders and celebrities as self-aggrandizement. Aufderheide said he traveled on holidays to places such as Bosnia and Herzegovina or out to sea to bring troops morale-boosting visits from entertainers. This, he said, caused collegial jealousy to turn to bile.

In the end, the pastor believed the Navy did the right thing in investigating his case and promoting him. But he also noted that it took federal investigations and help from the likes of Adm. James Ellis, then commander of U.S. Navy Europe and NATO’s southern forces, and former astronaut-turned-senator John Glenn to get things moving. But by that time, chaplains across the globe, via the klaxon of e-mail, had heard of his plight and Aufderheide had accidentally sounded the horn of revolution.

"It’s not me personally," Aufderheide said. "My case came right when this technology had been so much in use that it was second nature. ... The difference in my case was e-mail. The head shed couldn’t control the flow of information anymore."

There are now five separate lawsuits — including two class-action cases that are being heard together and represent about 2,000 current and former chaplains — filed against the Navy claiming bias against evangelicals, or simply against theologically conservative chaplains of any denomination. The class-action suits aim to rewire naval promotions to throw alleged denominational bias out the door and to investigate past practices. As a result, Pentagon officials have admitted, the cases were among the reasons a section of last year’s Defense Authorization Act largely blocks new lawsuits disputing promotions.

The cases highlight the inherent complexities that come into play when government and religion cross paths and expose small fissures — and even gaping chasms — in how different chaplains, even when sharing a general Christian persuasion, view their vocations.

"My hope is that in 50 years we will look back on this case and say this is a seminal case that deals with establishment of religion," said Arthur Schulcz, the Vienna, Va.-based attorney representing the chaplains.

Schulcz has high-powered help. The Rutherford Institute — the legal foundation that represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against former President Clinton — has also taken the cases for free.

Rutherford attorney Steve Aden has written a study of the controversy and called it "The Navy’s Perfect Storm." Aden likened the battle of the evangelicals to that of blacks in the South during the 1960s.

"It runs deep, let me tell you," Aden said. "These are dedicated, dedicated men. We are really convinced this is a hegemony that has to be dismantled."

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, has demanded the Navy review its promotion system. The Rev. Billy Baugham, president and chairman of the Associated Gospel Churches’ commission on chaplains, recently penned a fiery missive he distributed to all 6 million members of his church claiming the Navy’s chaplaincy was in the grip of "massive corruption." He also plans to send it to every member of Congress. An internal Navy review from 1999 obtained by Stars and Stripes revealed that chaplains over several years had more incidents of disciplinary action than did the service’s entire line officer community. Most were disciplined for sexual misconduct or sexual harassment.

"I’m calling it Chaplaingate," Baugham said, "and the gates are not pearly."

Baugham — who approves and represents all chaplains of his denomination — complained that several of his chaplains have been disciplined or not promoted because of their beliefs, or because they dared to scrutinize the service.

"When you pick up a rock," Baugham said, "the bugs run."

Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has pledged to ask for hearings next year to investigate the Navy.

"I’ve read letters from wives and husbands who have been in the military, I’ve had several conversations, and I have concerns," Jones said. One year ago, Jones wrote to the Navy and demanded a response to the chaplains’ charges. He has never heard back from the service.

"That upset me," Jones said, though he added that he doesn’t know whether it was simply a naval oversight.

Tilted trinity?

The class-action suits allege that the Navy staffs its mostly Christian Chaplain Corps with about one-third Roman Catholics, one-third liturgical Protestants and one-third evangelicals. The suits claim that’s unfair because so many sailors come from evangelical backgrounds and that good chaplains are run out of the service to keep the ratio in place.

The Navy will not discuss the lawsuits. However, it denies any favoritism or "thirds system."

"Chaplains are naval officers first, and then they’re chaplains," said Lt. Jon Spiers, a spokesman for Navy personnel. "And as chaplains they get promoted the same, paid the same and treated the same as other naval officers. They have the same duties and responsibilities as other naval officers."

Spiers also said the Navy does not monitor the religious preferences of sailors.

"The Navy does not track that data. We don’t have that. ... The Chaplain Corps charter is to support the needs of all personnel. It’s not important to keep numbers of who is of what faith, because a chaplain is there to support everybody."

The Defense Manpower Data Center, however, does log the faiths of everyone in the military. According to its numbers cited in legal documents, there are more evangelicals in the Navy than there are other Protestants and Catholics combined.

Some internal Navy documents concur with the suing chaplains. A 1995 analysis by Navy Capt. Larry Ellis, then chaplain of the Marine Corps, found that over the previous 15 years nonliturgical ministers occupied only 14 of 119 top command billets in the Chaplain Corps. The report used the tenure of John J. O’Connor, the Navy’s chief of chaplains who later became archbishop of New York and arguably the Vatican’s most powerful voice in America, as its starting point.

"There is no suggestion that this pattern was deliberate," Ellis wrote. "However, the institutional bias is very clear."

Today’s court cases have huge implications. Though the evangelicals maintain that money is not their motive, the class actions could result in millions of dollars in back pay for failed promotions.

On Sept. 2, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina released all those who served on Navy chaplaincy selection boards from their oaths of secrecy, allowing the suing chaplains to dig into the inner logic behind who advances. Urbina lifted the oaths all the way back to 1977, the year O’Connor installed two priests on every board. The evangelicals say that set the stage for dominance by Roman Catholics and the Protestant faiths most like them: the liturgicals, such as Episcopalians and other mainliners. Liturgical Christians organize services according to format and ancient tradition; evangelicals emphasize the individual and relationships with God.

None of several liturgical chaplains asked for comment agreed to interviews.

The Navy stopped the practice of loading selection boards with priests after an evangelical chaplain sued it in 1986. Today’s suing chaplains would prefer that no chaplains sit on selection boards for other chaplains to avoid bias.

"Like," Schulcz said, "chooses like."

Ron Wilkins, the former chaplain who sued in ’86 and now lives in Oklahoma City, said his problems started when he criticized a priest. The Catholic chaplain said a public prayer that he hoped "cold beer and warm women" would be waiting at the next port.

Since two priests sat on all chaplain promotion boards, Wilkins believed they blocked his promotion.

"I was dead," the Southern Baptist said.

"My first time in court, the only way I could stay in the Navy and pursue my calling was to take them to court. I just wanted the two legal boards that Congress guaranteed me. They just had the boards so stacked, I just didn’t have a chance."

The Navy settled his suit by promoting him to lieutenant commander. However, the service later retired him after a tour on Cuba that Wilkins said the Navy characterized as having "polarized" the chapel via evangelical preaching.

Wilkins has since filed another suit seeking reform in the Navy and his reinstatement to active duty.

"If you’ve failed to please one of your junior chaplains who is a Catholic and you’re a commander, you won’t make captain," Wilkins said. "If you cross one anywhere, you’re toast."

Perhaps ironically, Wilkins said that when he first joined the Navy in 1977, O’Connor personally told him the service really needed preacher-types.

"He said the Chaplain Corps had too many psychologists," Wilkins said.

Despite the tough talk about hegemony of priests, some evangelicals say their lawsuits are not about any specific religion.

"I’ve got several friends who are priests, and they’re great guys," said James Weibling, a retired Baptist chaplain in Texas. "I’m not anti-Catholic. I’m against playing favorites."

In August, Urbina expanded the scope of review in the class-action suits from the late ’80s to the late ’70s, meaning that the number of chaplains represented in the class goes up to somewhere around 2,000. The evangelicals claim that O’Connor’s demand that two priests sit on each selection board set the tone for today’s conflict.

"I think it’s cosmic," said Philip Veitch, a former Naples chaplain, of Urbina’s most recent ruling. Veitch has filed his own case alleging sermon censorship and forced resignation.

"I think it’s global. I think it’s the beginning of the end," he said, referring to the Navy’s alleged policy.

The Navy had tried to block the expansion of the suit by arguing that O’Connor, an important witness from the period, had died. The judge disagreed.

Constitutional quandary

Experts say the conflict tests essential constitutional creeds dealing with church and state.

"It certainly highlights some of the difficulties, and some of the reasons why the Constitution bars the establishment of a religion," said John Ferguson, a First Amendment specialist with the Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University, and also an attorney and Baptist minister.

"That’s a very private matter that’s too important for the government to be involved in. When you have a special situation like a chaplaincy program, it causes some special problems."

Ferguson said quotas won’t work — a service would have to constantly poll its membership to see if religious affiliations change. And chaplaincy programs are particularly challenged by how to serve minorities such as Wiccans or Hindus.

"How do you do that?" Ferguson asked. "How do you allow these people to be authentic in their faith and still serve all the members of the community?"

The organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State is opposed to chaplains, period.

"The group of Navy chaplains that is suing the Navy in federal court is a good example of why the Navy, and for that matter, all the tentacles of our federal government should refrain from intermingling with religion," said Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United. Like the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, Leaming opposes chaplains in Congress or the services.

"Both situations violate at least the spirit of the First Amendment principle of church-state separation," Leaming said. "Both definitely cause unneeded divisiveness, as is represented by the evangelicals’ lawsuit against the Navy’s chaplaincy policy."

Madison, though an early supporter of chaplains in Congress and the military, later decried the practice.

"The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion," Madison wrote. "The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes...Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion."

Nonetheless, though it fought against and stopped mandatory prayer at military academies, the American Civil Liberties Union does not oppose chaplains.

"It’s been challenged and upheld by the courts," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU’s national capital affiliate. "The reasoning is, when the military takes someone and puts them on a ship, or somewhere in Afghanistan, it’s reasonable for the government to provide some means of exercising their religion. That’s the same thing that happens in the prisons. We’re not opposed to that."

Doug Bandow, a religion and politics analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, agreed.

"I don’t see how you can have folks in the military and not give them access to chaplains," Bandow said. "You can’t put guys in Iraq and say, ‘Good luck, now find a church.’ I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s establishment of religion."

However, Bandow said the Chaplain Corps needs outside scrutiny, "some monitoring mechanism to check abuses."

Regarding the lawsuits, however, ACLU’s Spitzer wasn’t necessarily offended at the idea of a "thirds system."

"The Navy might say what’s important is that the Navy might have one chaplain of each category onboard."

The evangelicals, though, say the alleged policy keeps them from advancing regardless of performance. A common complaint is that of being passed over for promotion while overweight chaplains with liturgical backgrounds move up. Or, of having successful services taken over by other chaplains who are envious and attribute the popularity to ambition and hubris.

Lt. Cmdr. David Wilder, a Baptist chaplain at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was passed over for promotion five times. He said his problems began in Okinawa in the early 1990s. He led what he called a successful Baptist service in a base chapel until an Episcopal chaplain suggested that the service be changed to a formal Eucharist, or communion. Wilder refused. Then, one day the Episcopal chaplain interrupted the service and took over.

"The Episcopal priest came in from the back of the congregation with an incense pot thing, I think they call it a censer, and he comes in robes, swinging this incense thing back and forth," Wilder said. "He tells the congregation to stop singing, and that I was relieved, and that we now would start a proper Christian worship service, and that I was to leave the chapel. The message there is that the chapel had to be cleansed after I’d been in there leading worship."

Wilder said attendance at the chapel service then dwindled from around 125 to only a dozen. He had moved his Baptist service to the base theater, and his flock had followed. That so irked the other chaplain, Wilder said, that he tried to have the service spiked.

Surprisingly, the chaplain who inadvertently sounded the electronic trumpet has nothing against the Navy as a whole — for him, the system worked. But the Chaplain Corps, he contends, has become more about buddy systems and less about integrity.

When Aufderheide was a young lieutenant, a senior chaplain took him to lunch and explained that "90 percent of my time is spent getting chaplains out of trouble." Aufderheide said shoplifting and adultery were commonplace.

He believes the Navy let the Chaplain Corps go its own way because the whole idea of managing a religious endeavor was alien to government.

"They had much discretion because nobody was overseeing them," Aufderheide said. "Nobody wants to get involved in religion. That’s a messy area."

E Pluribus Unum

The chaplaincy is inherently about religion, and diverse ones. Navy chaplains constantly bring up the idea of pluralism. The problem, evangelicals maintain, is that it can mean the ability of all chaplains to pursue their faith, a requirement that all chaplains not offend the faith of another or simply describe the environment of many faiths making up the sea service.

"There is no definition," attorney Schulcz said. "There is no written policy."

According to sworn testimony entered into the Veitch case, nailing what the word means requires Marine marksmanship. Cmdr. Lawrence Zoeller, an equal opportunity investigator who looked into the Veitch complaint and decided against his claims, failed to provide an exact definition under oath. However, he did say that a sermon from the Reformed Episcopal chaplain was anti-pluralistic because it preached that humans needed no intermediary to approach God. The message, particularly because it asserted that "salvation is not dispensed by the hand or the cup or the wafer," was deemed offensive to Catholics.

The difficulty is that Navy regulations say chaplains may preach the tenets of their religions — and Veitch and his attorney maintain the message is standard Reformation theology. The definition of pluralism, then, becomes paramount in settling a chaplain dispute.

Zoeller later testified that he’d similarly expect a priest to avoid homilies about the primacy of the pope — a key element of Roman Catholicism. He also implied that a Christian chaplain should tread lightly when preaching about the divinity of Christ if Jews or Hindus were in the audience.

"A chaplain wouldn’t preach his doctrine if it was offensive to another religious group," Zoeller testified.

"That is, in effect, both an establishment of religion and a violation of free exercise," Schulcz said of the testimony. "That is, in fact, contrary to the whole spirit of the First Amendment."

Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hendricks, head of policy for the chief of chaplains, testified that pluralism was instead a description of the environment within which chaplains must work.

"Pluralism, again, doesn’t describe how we do what we do," Hendricks testified. "It more describes the context in which we serve."

The Chaplain Corps Code of Ethics says chaplains may adhere to the forms and practices of their faith groups. Navy spokesman Spiers said that the immediate past chief of chaplains, now-retired Rear Adm. Barry Black, invoked the concept of pluralism when the Seventh Day Adventist assumed his current mantle of Senate chaplain.

It is "a perfect fit for someone who has been a military chaplain to serve as a Senate chaplain because of the pluralistic environment in which they work," Spiers said.

Schulcz said some of his clients have been told not to end prayers with a mention of Jesus. One was told, "You preach too much about Jesus."

The suing evangelicals maintain they don’t want to control what other chaplains say in their messages. They say they just don’t want any interference in their own messages — and they want the right to advance in rank freely.

While Aufderheide has nothing to do with any of the lawsuits, some consider the war in the Chaplain Corps his coup.

"It was a political hot potato because of exactly what it led to," Aufderheide said of his case. "So the Chaplain Corps did everything it could to discredit me and make my claim illegitimate. ... The Chaplain Corps put their whole weight behind fighting this."

Regardless, he said that he pursued his own vindication and nothing more. His life is now far removed from the swell and lurch of life at sea, the crush and sounding of Neapolitan traffic. And the crossroads, too, receded from view as Aufderheide and family steered a new course toward leafy Oregon.

"This," he said, "is much more sedate."

But having spent four years at those crossroads, Aufderheide predicted it will take steel and persistence for the suing evangelicals to see their war through.

"When you take on an institution like the Chaplain Corps, you have to be obsessed," he said, "or you’ll never win."

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