Former rabbi's book recounts court battle over challenge to military chaplaincy

July 18, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

A former Maryland rabbi and longtime lawyer has written a book about one of the nation's least heralded Army battles -- one he helped to fight on the legal front to save its chaplain corps from a church-and-state constitutional challenge.

Israel Drazin, who served three local synagogues before concentrating two decades ago on his career in law, had rare qualifications that brought him into the case: his own military service as a chaplain.

In 1957, at age 21, Mr. Drazin had finished college and rabbinical school and wanted to join the Army because, he said, "I was tired of studying." He was commissioned as the Army's youngest chaplain, serving three years on active duty.

By the time he was recalled to active duty nearly two decades later, Mr. Drazin had attained the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve, earned a law degree, two master's degrees and a doctorate in biblical studies, and was a veteran civil servant, chief of the civil litigation staff of the Health Care Financing Administration.

His recall was prompted by a suit filed in November 1979 in the federal District Court in New York by two Harvard Law School students -- in what may have been a class project -- challenging the constitutionality of the Army's Corps of Chaplains under the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion.

The students contended that civilian clergy should be spiritual advisers to the military.

Although it received minimal publicity, the suit was "the most serious challenge" the chaplaincy ever has faced, said Col. Wayne Kuehne, director of plans, policy and training for the Army chief of chaplains.

The Judge Advocate General Corps, the Army's lawyers, took on the defense. However, the chaplains saw that the JAG lawyers "didn't understand the chaplaincy and how it worked," Mr. Drazin said.

"The chaplains had to come up with their own defense. They called in historians and sociologists and other experts, and started looking for a chaplain who was also a lawyer. My name came up," Mr. Drazin said.

He said he clashed with JAG and Justice Department lawyers because they endorsed a mainly technical defense, arguing that the students did not have legal standing to bring the suit.

Mr. Drazin said he argued "to get my view through" that the case should be fought on its merits, on the uniqueness of the chaplaincy and its role in seeing to the free exercise of religion by all soldiers regardless of denomination.

Military chaplains -- having been part of American forces since colonial days -- serve a unique function, and civilian clergyman could not perform their duties, said Mr. Drazin, who practices law in Columbia.

Chaplains undergo military training and are required to provide for the spiritual needs and free exercise of religion of everyone in the command, from privates to generals, regardless of the chaplain's denomination, he said.

"I didn't believe the technical arguments would win the case, and I was right because the judges ruled against us on those [technical] points," he said. "You want to present the merits of the case from the beginning. It affects one's decision -- subliminally -- it affects the understanding of the case. And it was that that won the case," Mr. Drazin said.

The Army spent nearly $100,000 defending the case in court for more than five years. Eventually, when the chaplains had won most of the major points -- particularly that the chaplaincy is constitutional -- the students asked to drop the suit.

The Army agreed, over the objections of the chaplains who wanted to litigate the issues through the Supreme Court for final resolution and to preclude another challenge to their existence, Mr. Drazin said.

The case was important from a legal standpoint because it would have affected chaplains of all the military services as well as those at federal prisons and hospitals.

"We didn't want to make it a big public issue, although if it had gone to the Supreme Court, there would have been more publicity," said Col. Tim Tatum, director of administration for the chief of chaplains.

Mr. Drazin said that when the case ended, the Army offered him his choice of remaining on active duty as a colonel or returning to the reserve as a brigadier general and chief of reserve chaplains. He chose the latter, becoming the first Jewish chaplain to win a general's star, and retired from the military in 1988.

The two Harvard Law students, Joel Katcoff and Allen M. Wieder, both 1980 honors graduates, are now members of prestigious New York law firms. They are reluctant to discuss the case or their reason for filing the suit.

"We thought it was wrong, and we challenged it," Mr. Katcoff said, adding that he has become "vague" on details after so many years. After the federal district and circuit courts rejected most of their case, he said, "We didn't have the passion to continue."

Mr. Drazin said he began the book, "For God and Country: The History of a Constitutional Challenge to the Army Chaplaincy," during the case, from notes he prepared for the Chief of Chaplains. He delayed it, however, to write several books dealing with Aramaic and the Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Bible.

"For God and Country" -- co-written by Cecil B. Currey, another former Army chaplain who is professor of military history at the University of South Florida -- was published last month by KTAV, which specializes in books of Jewish interest.

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