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The allegation that the U.S. Navy discriminates against some evangelical chaplains is gathering momentum. In the first case, filed in October 1999, then-Lt. Patrick Sturm claimed discrimination after being passed over twice for a promotion. There are now a total of four lawsuits, involving 27 plaintiffs, in the federal court system.

Although the Navy moved Sturm, a Pentecostal minister, up a rank to lieutenant commander several months after he filed his suit, U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan ruled that such administrative relief did not render his case moot.

"If it's a stacked system, [Sturm] is going to face problems again," said attorney Dean Broyles, who filed Sturm's lawsuit. "So will other nonliturgical evangelicals."

Naval Reserve chaplain Furniss Harkness, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, told Christianity Today: "The complaint all of us have is essentially the same thing: We're not on the same ground as the high church group or the Catholics."

The plaintiffs allege the discrimination takes several forms: They receive fewer chaplaincy appointments; when they are hired as chaplains they receive fewer promotions to higher rank; and Navy superiors squelch some evangelical practices, such as praying in Jesus' name.

The Navy denies any wrongdoing. In a motion to dismiss the suits, the U.S. Justice Department argues that meeting the faith needs of Navy personnel entails more than simply mirroring the variety of faiths within the Navy. Concerning the complaint by evangelicals that their distinctive worship practices are being squelched, the Justice Department said attempts to promote a general Protestant service on some Navy bases is not discrimination but an effort to augment limited resources. The Justice ...

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In the Magazine

May 21, 2001

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