Government-financed chaplains have been a long-standing fixture in the U.S. armed forces, despite the arguments of those who claim the practice amounts to unconstitutional government support of religion. This enduring relationship faces a new challenge as a result of support for the pro-life movement among military chaplains.

At the center of the controversy are new military guidelines instructing chaplains to "actively avoid" political advocacy. The guidelines were issued in June after Roman Catholic chaplains urged parishioners to participate in the national "Project Life Postcard Campaign," which was cosponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the campaign, Catholics were encouraged to write postcards to their members of Congress expressing support for a legislative ban on the late-term partial-birth abortion procedure. President Clinton ultimately vetoed the ban (CT, Nov. 11, 1996, p. 94).

LOBBYING BAN INVOKED: Military officials determined that the Catholic postcard campaign violated laws prohibiting government employees from lobbying for legislation.

In a June memorandum to the Air Force Chaplain Service, Air Force Judge Advocate General Maj. Gen. Bryan G. Hawley said that federal and military regulations "all prohibit the type of support requested by the Project Life Campaign." Hawley's memo said that chaplains "may from the pulpit address the moral issues surrounding the debate," but that they should "actively avoid becoming an advocate for particular parties, candidates, party platforms or proposed legislation."

"We must constantly be vigilant to avoid politicizing the armed forces," Hawley wrote. "To do so poses a grave threat to good order and discipline." The navy and the army also issued instructions that military chaplains could not "officially participate or urge others to participate in this [postcard] campaign."

Members of several faiths have taken issue with the directives. In a case now pending before the federal district court in Washington, D.C., Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim plaintiffs sued the government, arguing that the policy is a violation of religious liberty.

"There's no more chilling instance of government infringement of religious liberty than gagging preachers in their pulpits, and this case will make clear that is totally unacceptable in America," says Kevin Hasson, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.

The Becket Fund, a bipartisan ecumenical public-interest law firm, is representing the plaintiffs, who include a Roman Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, members of the Muslim-American Military Association, and several lay military members.

"For the first time in the history of our republic, chaplains are being told under threat of criminal prosecution what they can and cannot preach, and that is outrageous," Hasson told Christianity Today.

CENSORSHIP DENIED: Military officials deny that this is an attempt to censor chaplains. A memo released by the navy emphasized that the prohibition against participation in the postcard campaign did not restrict "the ability of chaplains to discuss the morality of current issues in their sermons or religious teachings," nor did it restrict the right of naval personnel "in their personal or private capacities to communicate with members of Congress."

However, Hasson says it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between preaching on moral issues and taking political positions. "In the American tradition, there is no barrier between morality and legislation, and there never has been," he says. "All of the great public issues have been debated by people of faith as well as by people of no faith."

Although the case was prompted by the Catholic campaign, Jim Edgren, executive director of the Commission on Chaplains of the National Association of Evangelicals, agrees that it has serious ramifications for all chaplains.

"Since politics is in the eye of the beholder, if an administration chooses to describe a moral issue as a political issue, this denies a chaplain the opportunity to address the moral, spiritual issue with his or her people," says Edgren. "In my view, that's a very powerful weapon to suppress dissent."

AN INHERENT PROBLEM? Some church-state separationists have argued that the case highlights the inherent problems that arise when government funds religious programs such as the chaplaincy.

In 1985, the Second Court of Appeals in New York ruled that it was constitutional for the government to provide the military with chaplains, because people in the armed services are often required to be deployed in situations where they have no access to churches or ministers.

According to Hasson, in light of this ruling, the government cannot regulate what chaplains say. "Once you have the right to have a chaplain, you have the right to have a real chaplain, not to a tame one, and the right to hear real sermons, not censored ones," he says.

Edgren acknowledges that a chaplain, who ministers to people of all religious persuasions, must be "sensitive to the individual's needs" when he or she "receives the king's coin." However, Edgren adds that chaplains in their own chapels and in advertised chapel services must also be free to practice the tenets of their particular faiths.

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"Our problem is that we tend to very often forget that besides being staff officers paid by the government, we also are representatives of our own denominations," he asserts.

The lawsuit is still in the early stages of the judicial process, with the first round of briefs submitted early in November. Hasson says the Becket Fund is committed to the case "for the long haul."

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