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WASHINGTON — Supporters of new legislation that would allow military chaplains to pray "in Jesus’ name" insist it’s needed to protect religious freedom in the ranks, arguing that service officials are still pressuring Christian ministers to tone down their language.

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., mandates that if chaplains are asked to lead a prayer in a public setting outside their official religious duties, they will have "the prerogative to close the prayer according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience."

Officials from Jones’ office said the measure came after continued complaints from chaplains that commanding officers were pressuring them into using nondenominational language in public settings, forcing them to choose between their beliefs and their military duty.

Jones introduced a similar bill two years ago, as lawmakers and military officials sparred over Navy and Air Force policies dictating secular, nondenominational prayers for chaplains outside of their worship services.

Those policies were repealed in the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill, but supporters failed to get enough backing to also include language specifically protecting chaplains who disobey superior officers by using nonapproved language in public settings, such as memorial or change-of-command ceremonies.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the evangelical advocacy group Faith and Action, said since then his group has continued to field complaints from chaplains who feel their faith is being marginalized.

"Even with the changes, there is still an air of intimidation," he said. "It’s an activity that can get you into trouble. There is an unsafe environment for them to be true to their religious convictions."

But Rev. Herman Keizer Jr., a retired Army chaplain and chairman of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, disagrees. His group blocked the effort two years ago, and said the issue isn’t about freedom of religion as much as it’s about serving the military community.

"The chiefs of the chaplains have clear policies," he said. "The chaplains work in a pluralistic environment. If they can’t do that, their endorsers shouldn’t be backing them."

The service rules don’t cover any private religious ceremonies, or chaplains’ interactions with troops seeking counseling.

No hearings have been scheduled for the proposed bill.


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