A priest of the Orthodox Church in America has charged that the U.S. Army's "up or out" policy - promotion of an officer over a stipulated period or release from the service - has resulted in a "severe injustice" against himself and the Eastern Orthodoxy.

His release in March followed 17 years and 8 months of service, largely in "Protestant chaplaincies" rather than in direct contact with Orthodox soldiers, he said in a letter to Rep. Robert Nix. (D-Pa.).

The letter written by the Rev. Athanasios R. G. Rector was released here by the Rev. Joseph Turner, chairman of the Chaplains' Promotion Research Committee, which seeks to overturn the Army policy. Father Turner, a Roman Catholic priest, had earlier noted that Catholic chaplains have been released after long service at a time when there is a shortage of chaplains to serve the Army's Catholic soldiers.

In charging injustice to himself and the Eastern Orthodoxy, Father Rector states that the Army, unlike the air Force, does not recognize Orthodoxy as a "major faith." For that reason, the recognition of "Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism" as the nation's major faiths had actually caused him to serve as a "Protestant chaplain."

Father Rector, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, wrote in his letter to Rep. Nix:

". . . In the Army in particular, an Eastern Orthodox priests has been included in the 'Protestant category' and has been assigned and expected to work as if he were a Protestant minister.

"I entered the Army chaplaincy in July 1962 . . . I found myself expected to conduct Protestant worship services (although not forced to do so) in spite of the fact that the canon law of the Eastern Orthodox Church forbids me to conduct any services and perform any rites other than those of our faith."

Father Rector said he was continuously assigned to battalions in which there were no Eastern Orthodox soldiers. Because of Orthodox law, he said, "this meant that my work in these battalions has of necessity been of a nonreligious nature, that is, counseling, social work, 'moral officer' duties.

"But because I was unable to function as a Protestant chaplain . . . several of my commanders have been dissatisfied to a degree and the result has been less than maximum officer evaluation report scores and dismissal from the Army."

While Orthodox troops are scattered throughout the Army, he said, he had felt the need, in the United States and overseas, to seek out such soldiers and bring the church to them.

After his release and his appeal for a reassessment by the Army, he was refused reinstatement to his major's rank.

In dropping him, the priest said, the appeals board voted to remove two documents from his service record. It also stated, he said, that "I may have been disadvantaged by my classification as a Protestant and assignment to work as a battalion chaplain."

Clergymen who are dropped by the service lose pension rights, among other benefits of Army service.

In his letter to the member of Congress, Father Rector expressed concern that at a time of a Catholic chaplain shortage, numbers of priests had been dropped from the Army after long service. All would have served gladly without question in the same rank, he added.

Father Rector said the Office of the Chief of Army Chaplains had admitted it had requested that the Catholic priests be retained in their present rank and the Army's "up or out" policy not be applied to them. The Army refused.

He said the "anomaly" is that the Office of the Chief of Chaplains was "trying rather desperately to recruit more Roman Catholic priests" on one hand, while on the other it was, "sitting idly by while a number of those who are still on active duty are kicked out of the Army. There are many Roman Catholic bishops who are aware of what is being done to many of their priests in the Army, and several have stated in no uncertain terms that they will not send their diocesan priests into the Army as long as this nonsense continues."

In his letter to Rep. Nix. Father Rector stated, "No one argues that those who have been dismissed were incompetent, immoral, or ineffective. The (chief of chaplains) office has said repeatedly that the 'failure of a chaplain to be promoted is not to be considered a reflection on his ministry.' If this is so, then what is this 'nonselection' and dismissal supposed to reflect? I propose that it indicates that the Roman Catholic priests and other chaplains who have been dismissed have been 'hired as clergymen but fired as soldiers.'"

The Orthodox priest noted that the policy does not affect medical officers. The policy on promotion or dismissal was dropped, allowing Medical Corps officers to continue to serve in their current grades.

This was done, he said, because the Army needs doctors who will serve. But, he added, this does not apply to the Roman Catholic chaplains.

Congress has mandated 420 Catholic chaplains for the Army. The number on duty (as of March) was 257, the priest said, "the difference being filled by Protestant ministers who cannot possibly perform the duties of a Roman Catholic priest."

Father Rector, a member of the Chaplains' Promotion Research Committee headed by Father Turner, said that 115 chaplains of various religious bodies have been "involuntarily released" from the Army under the up-or-out policy in the last two years.