Ex-chaplain files suit alleging religious bias Promotion boards favor 'high-church' Christians, retired Navy officer says

October 16, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With a growing number of evangelicals in the Navy chaplain corps complaining of second-class treatment, a retired officer has filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that he was passed over for promotion because of religious discrimination.

Lt. Cmdr. Robert A. Yourek is one of at least two retired officers who have vowed to take the Navy to court, saying that promotions and choice jobs in the chaplain corps are reserved for Roman Catholics and main-line Protestants, at the expense of "low-church" Protestants, such as Baptists.

Yourek's lawsuit, filed this month in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, alleges that Yourek, a 46-year-old officer of the Bible Churches Chaplaincy, was forced to retire Oct. 1 after being passed over for promotion six times. Besides being biased against him and other low-church Protestants, the suit contends, the chaplain corps violated the constitutional rights of Yourek, who is white, by favoring women and minorities for promotion.

Yourek's lawsuit asks that he be returned to active duty and that a special promotion board consider his case.

The lawsuit comes two months after The Sun reported that most of the top jobs in the chaplain corps go to "high-church" Christians, who include Catholics and main-line liberal Protestant denominations such as Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, united by their emphasis on sacrament and ritual.

The highest percentage of Navy personnel -- nearly half -- consider themselves evangelical or low-church Protestants, who tend to be more conservative in their reading of the Bible and put more stress on preaching in worship.

The Navy had no comment on the lawsuit. Top officials within the 900-member chaplain corps, which addresses the spiritual needs of the 549,000 men and women in the Navy and Marine Corps, have insisted that there has never been any bias.

Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, deputy chief of chaplains and a Seventh-day Adventist, told The Sun in August: "In my 22 years I haven't been discriminated against. I'm as [evangelical] as you can get."

But some evangelical chaplains point to troubling statistics: Of the 17 most influential jobs in the chaplain corps, eight are held by members of high-church Protestant sects, who make up just 15 percent of Navy personnel, and five by Catholics, who account for 24 percent of the Navy. The remaining four are held by low-church Protestants, who account for 41 percent -- the largest religious group of Navy personnel.

In the past 30 years, only one low-church Protestant has served as chief of chaplains.

In the past fiscal year, five Navy captains have been told to retire; four are low-church Protestant chaplains and one is Catholic.

"If you looked at the statistics you'd say something's wrong here," said Barry P. Steinberg, Yourek's attorney. "Year after year, certain religions benefit and certain religions suffer, and that's unconstitutional."

The lawsuit also asks that the Navy be required to reserve nearly all the positions on its chaplain promotion board for nonchaplain officers, as the Air Force and Army do. A similar lawsuit will be filed next month in U.S. District Court in San Diego, said Ronald G. Wilkins, a Baptist chaplain who retired as a Navy commander in 1995.

Yourek said he was alarmed when he came across a 1997 report by a Navy captain that concluded that denomination, not merit, was the decisive factor on two chaplain promotion boards the captain had reviewed. Two years earlier, a report by Navy Capt. Larry H. Ellis, then chaplain of the Marine Corps, noted a lack of evangelical chaplains in the upper echelons of the chaplain corps.

"Ideally, I'd like to come back on active duty," Yourek said. "I'm proud of being a chaplain."

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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