Lawyers for Phil Veitch of Jacksonville, N.C., say he was accused by Roman Catholic and Episcopal chaplains overseeing his work of preaching "nonpluralism" in a Navy chapel in Naples, Italy, and charge he was forced to resign because he refused to stop preaching about his conservative Christian beliefs.
"Pluralism means you respect all other faith groups ... but your own constitutional rights are not abridged in your own forum," Veitch, an evangelical Christian who left the Navy in September, said in an interview. "They surely were in mine. And a devious and slippery notion of pluralism has arisen which in effect ends up neutering and defanging constitutional privileges."
His case is one of several in an ongoing controversy that pits the U.S. Navy against evangelical and mostly nonliturgical members of its chaplain corps.
On Feb. 9, a District of Columbia federal judge heard arguments in the case. Veitch's lawyers are hoping to obtain a preliminary injunction that will lead to Veitch's reinstatement pending a full trial.
The Navy is not commenting on the specifics of the cases against it by the chaplains.
"It's pending resolution and it would be inappropriate to comment on it at this time," Cmdr. Betsy Bird, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy said when asked about the Veitch case.
Since the court hearing, Veitch's lawyers have begun collecting statements from those who attended chapel services at naval facilities in Naples.
"When Phil Veitch was removed from the pulpit for failure to preach pluralism among religions ... it didn't just impact him, it impacted the hundreds of members of the Protestant chapel congregation at Naples," said Steve Aden, one of Veitch's lawyers and chief litigation counsel at the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va.
"They lost their leader, their spiritual leader. They lost their pastor."
He hopes the court will decide about Veitch's reinstatement within a month.
Veitch, 47, is affiliated with the Reformed Episcopal Church, an evangelical denomination that broke off from the then-Protestant Episcopal Church in the late 1800s. He is now unemployed.
Aden said the case fits into a larger array of claims against the Navy.
"I think Phil Veitch's experience is one example of what we think is dozens of instances of discrimination against evangelical chaplains in the Navy," he said.
Since 1999, there have been three cases filed against the Navy, including those of a San Diego chaplain, the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, which endorses charismatic chaplains, and a class action suit that alleges "illegal religious quotas" for promotions and career opportunities for chaplains. In all the cases, chaplains claim they have been discriminated against because of their nonliturgical or evangelical beliefs.
"Naples typifies the prejudice -- and I would underline that word prejudice -- against evangelical Navy people -- both chaplains and the Navy people themselves," said Art Schulcz, who also represents Veitch as well as chaplains in the class action and Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches cases.
The class action suit has been delayed because the judge overseeing it died earlier this month.
Lynette S. Williams, a spokeswoman for the Navy Chief of Chaplains, denied there is any quota system for chaplain promotions.
"There are no quotas involved in a promotion in any field, not just the chaplain corps," she said.
The Navy installed Rear Adm. Barry C. Black as chief of chaplains in August. He is the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first African-American to serve in the position.
Schulcz, who is based in Vienna, Va., said the Veitch case demonstrates the need for improvements in the Navy to meet the worship needs of its personnel.
"In Naples, you have very limited options," he said. "This is not like Washington, D.C., where you can walk down the street, where you you can find a chapel or a church that you like. You have a language barrier problem."
Since the filing of the several suits, Southern Baptist Convention officials have investigated possible mistreatment of chaplains they have endorsed. David Mullis, chaplaincy associate for the military for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, said he now is hopeful about the future for Southern Baptist and other chaplains in the Navy.
"What we're doing is looking forward to the days ahead as opposed to trying to sort out what happened in the days past," said Mullis, who declined to comment on the suits. "My conclusion is that the days ahead are very bright for chaplains of all faith groups and the qualifications for promotion for assignment is those that are best qualified."