Bias charge stalls pick for top Navy chaplain Clinton nominee allegedly passed over officer from rival Lutheran group

May 13, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Allegations of religious discrimination against President Clinton's choice to be the chief of Navy chaplains has stalled the nomination in the Senate Armed Services Committee until the Pentagon can review the matter.

The nominee, Rear Adm. A. Byron Holderby, presided over an officers' promotion board in 1996 that was found to have discriminated against a Lutheran chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Stan M. Aufderheide, according to a review by the Navy's anti-discrimination officer. But the Navy's inspector general later found the allegations "unsubstantiated," and Holderby was nominated for the top chaplain's post last month.

Aufderheide claims that Holderby engineered his rejection for commander because the two belong to competing Lutheran factions. Holderby was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the nation's largest Lutheran group, which is relatively liberal. Aufderheide belongs to the second-largest group, the more traditional Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Holderby, 63, who has two Legions of Merit and a career that has taken him from the Vietnam War to aircraft carriers and Marine commands, was unavailable for comment.

Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky, a Navy spokesman, said "the Navy has been very, very fair" in the matter. The anti-discrimination review by Capt. Joseph N. Stafford, which concluded that Aufderheide had been "improperly denied promotion," was not as thorough as the naval inspector general's report, Jurkowsky said.

But Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and two Florida senators say the IG report may have been flawed. Glenn asked the committee to postpone a vote on Holderby until the Defense Department's inspector general can review the case.

Omitted evidence

The Navy IG's report that cleared Holderby did not include evidence that raises questions about the board. One board member believed that an unnamed officer had been "passed over due to denominational discrimination," according to a transcript of interviews obtained by The Sun.

Also, the IG's report did not include "the bias in the selection process" cited in the anti-discrimination report, Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack of Florida said in a letter to the Pentagon urging a review. Some officers with "relatively weak records" were promoted over those with "far superior records," the letter said.

"We are concerned that the Navy's promotion selection process may not be serving the larger interests of the Navy," the two senators wrote.

Aufderheide, reached in Naples, Italy, where he is a chaplain on the staff of Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, commander in chief of U.S. naval forces in Europe, would not comment.

Last year, Lopez urged the creation of a special promotion board to reconsider Aufderheide, a Persian Gulf war veteran, calling him "one of the finest chaplains" and best officers he has known.

The commanders' promotion board led by Holderby, then deputy chief of chaplains, met in April 1996 and included five other members, four of whom were chaplains. Thirty-five lieutenant commanders were considered for commander; 20 were selected.

All four Evangelical Lutheran chaplains who were before the board were promoted to commander, while Aufderheide and another Missouri Synod member were passed over, according to Navy documents.

Seeking the 'best'

Holderby told fellow board members to seek the "best and fully qualified" and not consider a chaplain's denomination, according to the Navy IG report.

Aufderheide filed a request for a special promotion board and an equal opportunity complaint, charging that Holderby had pressed the other chaplains on the board "for his denomination over those of other Lutherans."

But the Navy IG inquiry, led by Vice Adm. Lee F. Gunn, found that a chaplain's denomination had not been an issue in a promotion.

Holderby told the IG investigators that, while Aufderheide "has a very fine record, others do, too. We [the chaplain corps] have the lowest percentage of selection."

The report also noted that Aufderheide had been passed over by another commander's board in 1997, but did not file charges of discrimination then.

In the report's analysis, Gunn stated: "No board member or recorder recalled any conduct during the board on the part of Chaplain Holderby, or any other member, that could constitute denominational discrimination."

But the transcripts of the IG's interviews show that one unidentified board member said a "major sore point" concerned "the consideration of denomination."

"It was done 'with such finesse at one point' that this board member felt that 'one officer was passed over due to 'denominational considerations,' " according to the investigator's synopsis of the interview.

One Navy source said that was a reference not to Aufderheide but to another chaplain under consideration. The IG review saw this as a mere "perception" of a first-time board member and concluded that Holderby acted properly.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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