Chaplains Group Opposes Prayer Order

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

An association that represents more than 70 percent of the chaplains in the U.S. military, including many evangelical Christians, is opposing a demand by conservatives in Congress for a presidential order guaranteeing the right of chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus.

The rising calls for an executive order are based on "confusion and misinformation," because Christian chaplains routinely pray in the name of Jesus, in public, thousands of times a week in military chapels around the world, said the Rev. Herman Keizer Jr., chairman of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces.

"This has been portrayed as though chaplains are not allowed to pray in Jesus's name, without any distinction between what they do all the time in worship services and what they do occasionally, in ceremonial settings where attendance is mandatory," Keizer said.

Known by the initials NCMAF, Keizer's group is a private, 40-year-old association of more than 60 Christian, Jewish and Muslim denominations. It says it represents 5,430 of the 7,620 chaplains in the armed forces.

The calls for an executive order to protect the right to pray in Jesus's name have originated in large part from a rival association, the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers. Formed two years ago, it says it represents about 800 chaplains, exclusively from evangelical Christian churches.

The Rev. Billy Baugham, executive director of ICECE, said he was surprised by NCMAF's stand.

"It will just lead more evangelicals to leave them and join us," he said.

Prodded by complaints from ICECE, 74 members of Congress signed a letter to President Bush last fall saying that "it has come to our attention that in all branches of the military it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian chaplains to use the name of Jesus when praying."

In December, Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and three other congressmen unveiled a supporting petition that has since swelled to more than 200,000 signatures. Calls for congressional hearings and an executive order have become a staple on religious radio and television broadcasts, generating protests of White House inaction by conservative Christians, who are usually strong supporters of Bush.

In a letter this month to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Keizer said NCMAF believes that an executive order is unnecessary because the military is "now effectively addressing the current religious concerns."

Keizer, a minister in the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a conservative Protestant denomination, retired in 2002 after 34 years as an Army chaplain. He said the armed services are gradually rolling out guidelines that set a path between "those who don't want any religion practiced in the military, and those who want religion practiced without any limits in the military." An executive order "would just precipitate more litigation," he said.

In a Feb. 21 instruction to commanders, the secretary of the Navy distinguished between prayers given by chaplains at "divine worship services" -- on which there are no restrictions -- and those delivered at "command functions" that people of many faiths are encouraged or required to attend.

"Absent extraordinary circumstances," any religious elements in a command ceremony "should be nonsectarian," it said. Air Force guidelines issued a few weeks earlier made essentially the same distinction, calling for "non-denominational, inclusive prayer" or a moment of silence at military ceremonies.

Keizer said NCMAF sees nothing wrong with a commander asking a chaplain to offer nonsectarian prayers at such events, as long as the chaplain can decline to participate, with no repercussions.

But Baugham said evangelical chaplains must represent the church that endorses them for military duty, and "they are not authorized to give nonsectarian prayers." He also said he does not believe that chaplains are truly free to pray as they wish in worship services.

"There are chaplains who get their knuckles rapped pretty hard, and we have documentation of this, for praying in Jesus's name in chapels," he said.

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