(RNS) An appeals court has sent the case of a former Navy chaplain who said he was forced to retire due to religious discrimination back to a lower court.

Ron Wilkins sued the Navy Chaplain Corps in June 1999, claiming his involuntary early retirement in 1995 was due to "religious repression, coercion and other illegal activities," according to court documents.

The U.S. District Court in San Diego dismissed the case, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that some of his claims should be heard in the district court.

In a case similar to several others filed in courts in Washington, D.C., and California, Wilkins claims there is an ongoing policy in the chaplain corps that prevents nonliturgical ministers like himself from receiving the appropriate number of positions. He claimed that Protestant liturgical chaplains are three times as numerous proportionately as service members who are nonliturgical Protestants.

"This case cannot be characterized simply as a military discharge case with a few constitutional claims thrown in for good measure," wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown in a ruling filed Jan. 31.

"Although Wilkins sought money damages and reinstatement, his chief complaint is with the Navy Chaplain Corps' organization and its system of evaluation, assignment, promotion and selection for early retirement."

Art Schulcz, a Vienna, Va., lawyer who is representing Wilkins --now serving as a pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma City, Okla. -- and a number of other chaplains in cases against the Navy, hailed the decision.

"I think it's very significant," he said. "It puts another case back in the district court. It's one more chaplain who's out there saying, `We've been wronged.'"

The Navy continued its policy of not commenting on such cases. "Because litigation is still ongoing, there's really nothing we can say at this time," said Lynette S. Williams, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy chief of chaplains.

The reconsideration of Wilkins' suit brings to five the number of current court cases in which evangelical or nonliturgical chaplains claim mistreatment from the Navy.

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