COLUMBIA, Tenn. -- The Rev. Robert Adair says he was forced out of the Navy because of his religion.
A Navy chaplain for 17 years, the Baptist minister was selected for early retirement in 1996 when he was 46. If he was Roman Catholic or non-evangelical, he believes he would have been promoted.
''The Navy somewhat backhandedly has created a state church,'' said Adair, the pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church 40 miles south of Nashville. ''We who were more conservative and evangelical did not get the promotions, nor did we get the leadership positions.''
Adair is one of 17 plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit that accuses the Navy of endorsing Catholic and liturgical Protestant religions, discriminating against chaplains of other faiths and neglecting the religious needs of sailors and Marines.
The plaintiffs are suing on behalf of at least 600 chaplains. Their lawsuit is one of two pending in Washington, D.C., on the issue. A third is pending in San Diego.
The Justice Department has asked the courts to dismiss the suits and is waiting for a response, department spokesperson Charles Miller said.
Liturgical religions are Protestant faiths with a set order of worship, such as infant baptism. They include the Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran denominations. Non-liturgical faiths, also known as free-church faiths, baptize adults and older children, and do not have ritualistic worship. These include Baptist, Pentecostal and other evangelical denominations.
The lawsuits, filed over the past year and a half, accuse the Navy of favoring chaplains of liturgical faiths for promotions while discriminating against free-church chaplains. The free-church chaplains contend this promotes one religion over another, and keeps some sailors and Marines from receiving counsel from a chaplain within their faith.
''The Navy has attempted to squeeze all Protestant servicemen and women ... into a single liturgical worship mold while ignoring or actively hindering the religious needs of the non-liturgical personnel,'' the lawsuit states.
Lt. Steve Curry, a Navy spokes-person, would not comment on the lawsuits but said the Navy ''prides itself on its role in defending freedom of religion as well as practicing it.''
''The Navy chaplains, from a variety of faith groups, provide spiritual leadership to our servicemen in a free and open fashion,'' he said.
The chaplains say they want the Navy to restructure the way it promotes its chaplains to eliminate future discrimination.
Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University, said the litigation is serious because of its ''obvious entanglement of church and state.''
''This may be the moment when the courts revisit the constitutionality of the government employing chaplains,'' he said.
Chaplains are employed throughout government, from prisons and Veterans Administration hospitals to the military.
The Navy's 852 chaplains minister to approximately 543,000 active and reserve sailors and Marines, Curry said. The Navy said it does not categorize the chaplains as liturgical or free-church.
The Navy relies on a selection board comprised of other Navy chaplains to decide promotions and assignments, the lawsuits say. The free-church chaplains say board members are primarily Catholic and liturgical Protestant chaplains, and they make decisions based more on the candidate's religious affiliation than work record.
In comparison, the Army and Air Force rely on selection boards comprised of officers from their branches, not other chaplains.
The Navy's selection process is a disservice to sailors and Marines since Catholics and liturgical Protestants make up only 32 percent of their ranks, the lawsuit says, citing military data. About half of servicemen and women practice free-church faiths. The other 18 percent are Jewish, Muslim or claim no religious affiliation.
Raskin said the Navy controversy reflects problems associated with chaplains working in government.
''The problem is that the government is not only embracing God at a general level, but employing representatives of specific churches,'' he said.
Yet a New York federal judge in 1984 dismissed a lawsuit filed by two Harvard law students seeking to replace Army chaplains with civilian ones.
The judge noted that the First Congress, which drafted the Bill of Rights, also established the chaplain program, indicating, ''if nothing else, that our founding fathers saw no inconsistency between the two.''
Art Schulcz, a Virginia Beach, Va., attorney representing the chaplains in the Washington lawsuit, agreed.
He added that servicemen and women want religious guidance from chaplains of their own faith when dealing with the difficulties of combat.
''When you deal with life and death, the spiritual implications become very important,'' he said. ''Everyone wonders what happens when you die, and religion has the answer.''
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