Monday's decision by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina gives a boost to a pair of suits saying the Navy Chaplain Corps favors some Christian denominations over others. Urbina based his ruling on legal procedure, not the merits of the claims, but it allows the chaplains to seek a broader and costlier settlement or judgment.
The lawsuits contend the Navy Chaplain Corps favors chaplains who are Roman Catholic or from mainline Protestant denominations over evangelical Protestants. Some evangelical Navy chaplains say they have been passed over for promotions, harassed by their superiors or forced out of the military.
Urbina's ruling means lawyers for the 17 evangelical Protestant chaplains suing the Navy can represent all evangelical chaplains. The Navy argued against making the lawsuits a class action. Arthur A. Schulcz, one of the chaplains' lawyers, said Tuesday that between 700 and 1,000 current and former chaplains could be covered by the lawsuit. "If you're the Navy, this has the makings of a rather serious issue," Schulcz said. "I have (as clients) a number of people who have been passed over, a number of people who have been separated (from military service)."
Navy spokeswoman Sharon Anderson said it would be inappropriate for the service to comment on a pending lawsuit. In court documents, the Navy has argued it does not discriminate and that the Protestant chaplains' complaints involve isolated incidents that should be handled individually.
The Navy has about 850 chaplains to provide religious services to members of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The Navy divides its Christian chaplains into three categories: Roman Catholics, liturgical Protestants and nonliturgical Protestants. Liturgical Protestant denominations are those such as Presbyterian and Lutheran, which follow a set mode of worship, or liturgy. Nonliturgical denominations, such as Baptists and other Pentecostals, do not follow a set liturgy.
Chaplains suing the Navy say the service improperly sets aside a third of its chaplain slots for each category, although many more than a third of the sailors identify themselves as members of nonliturgical faiths.
Nonliturgical chaplains involved in the suit say they have been passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified Catholic or liturgical Protestant chaplains. They say some of their superiors have criticized or censored their sermons and pressured those who complained by stripping them of their duties or giving them poor performance evaluations. "It's what amounts to an old boys' club, run by and for certain denominations," Schulcz said.