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Chaplain opposes bill aimed at protecting prayer

Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt

A former captain in the Navy chaplain corps contends a bill in Congress that aims to broaden the religious freedom of military ministers actually would have the opposite effect.

Rev. Gary R. Pollitt, who now serves as executive director of the Military Chaplains Association of the United States of America, offered WorldNetDaily his view of legislation promoted by Navy Chaplain Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, who faces court martial Tuesday for a March 30 event in Washington, D.C., in which he prayed on the steps of the White House “in Jesus name.”

Pollitt, who was trained at a Baptist seminary and now has standing in the United Church of Christ, emphasized he speaks for himself on this issue and not for the Military Chaplains Association, whose members have a variety of opinions.

The “Military Chaplains Prayer Law” has passed the House as part of the fiscal 2007 National Defense Authorization Act. It says:

“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.”

Pollitt says that at first reading, “the law might seem to be a great advance in religious freedom,” but, he declares, “It is not!”

“It does not address the prayer rights of anyone else in the military,” Pollitt said. “It places the chaplain in a new level of potential conflict to military order as well as the chaplain’s own ecclesiastical superiors that sent the chaplain into the military.”

Chaplains, he elaborated, are not the only ones in the military who pray, and “one would think if you were going to deal with an issue like prayer, you would be concerned for everyone’s religious rights and needs.”

“Worse yet,” he continued, the bill “opens the door for specific regulation of religious matters in the military.”

Ministers, he insisted, already have freedom within the integrity of their tradition to minister, but “by saying you can do it, it becomes regulatory.”

He’s especially bothered by the “military necessity” clause, he said, because of the discretion it gives to superiors.

“It’s conceivable that, sooner or later, we’ll have to have some kind of protocol for testing ‘military necessity,'” he said.

Responding to Pollitt’s arguments, Klingenschmitt told WND, “Obviously, I’m against regulation of my prayers, and I’m in favor of being allowed to pray according to the dictates of my conscious.”

Klingenschmitt said the bill is meant to overrule a policy passed by the secretary of the Navy that requires non-sectarian prayers.

The Navy secretary, Klingenschmitt said, is “deliberately censoring the content of our prayers.”

In his court martial, he says, a Navy judge is enforcing a new policy, declaring worshipping in public is not the same as public worship.

The judge, refusing Klingenschmitt’s motion this week to drop the case, concluded chaplains are protected only inside the chapel on Sunday morning. If ordered not to worship in public, and they disobey, chaplains can be punished at a criminal court martial.

“There is no more fundamental right than the inalienable right to worship our creator, and I pray in Jesus name,” Klingenschmitt said. “For any government official to require non-sectarian prayers is for him to enforce his government religion upon me, to censor exclude and punish me for my participation.”

Klingenschmitt, a minister in the Evangelical Episcopal Church, said all religious faiths represented in the military “should take turns and share the prayer.”

His case will proceed Tuesday when former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who accompanied Klingenschmitt at the March 30 event, will be called to testify. Moore, the chaplain said, will affirm, “All I did was read a prayer out the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer, for which I had prior permission.”

Klingenschmitt says he worked with Reps. Walter B. Jones and Duncan Hunter on the legislation, which is under consideration in the Senate.

Pollitt argues controversies such as Klingenschmitt’s “arise from both sides of the First Amendment – free exercise of religion and non-establishment of religion.”

“In the military, there is an important balance in First Amendment issues that requires other considerations beyond what people might experience in ordinarily, daily civilian life,” Pollitt said.

Pointing out the Department of Defense repeatedly has expressed concern about the proposed law, Pollitt said he at least wants it sent back to Defense “for proper supporting documentation, analysis and legislative review.”

Klingenschmitt, who earlier this year staged an 18-day hunger strike to protest the Navy prayer policy, also has filed a whistleblower complaint with Congress because of his commander’s criticism that preaching about Jesus is “exclusive” and it offended people.

The case falls under the “whistleblower” framework because the restrictions were imposed only on Klingenschmitt shortly after he had contacted Congress and the president about the issues.

Several dozen other chaplains also have joined in a civilian lawsuit that alleges the Navy hierarchy allows only those Christian ministers who advocate only non-sectarian blandishments to be promoted. Those with evangelical beliefs, they say, are routinely drummed from the Navy.

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