Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Court Upholds Navy Chaplain Selection Policy

In a doctrinally important decision yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected claims by three non-liturgical Protestant ministers that the composition of the Navy's chaplain corps violates the First Amendment. Plaintiffs, who had been rejected for the corps, argued that liturgical Protestant chaplains were unconstitutionally over-represented in relation to the religious preference of Navy personnel served. In Larsen v. United States Navy, (DDC, April 30, 2007), the court upheld the Navy's current policy of taking the best-qualified candidates regardless of denomination, and found that plaintiff's challenge to the Navy's former policy of proportional representation of denominations is moot since the policy is no longer in effect.

In evaluating the Navy's current policy, the court held that under the Supreme Court's decision in Goldman v. Weinberger, the court should not apply the normal strict scrutiny standard used in free exercise cases. Instead, where military policy is involved, the court must use a more deferential analysis. The court said:
If the Navy were constitutionally required to organize and constitute a chaplaincy, so as to ensure the free exercise rights of its service members, then the chaplaincy program would have to not only be narrowly tailored to the free exercise needs of the Navy's service members, it would have to be in relative synergy with it.... If, as is the case here, the Navy is permitted, but not constitutionally required, to accommodate religious needs of its members via a chaplaincy program, the Navy's program need not satisfy every single service members' free exercise need, but need only promote free exercise through its chaplaincy program. The program is constitutionally sound if it simply works toward accommodating those religious needs.
The court found that the Navy's current program seeks legitimate military ends and is designed to accommodate the rights of Navy personnel to an appropriate degree. It found that plaintiffs' proposal that the chaplain corps reflect the actual religious demographics of the Navy confuses number of adherents with the religious needs of personnel, which may not be proportional to their numbers. A more tailored program would require the Navy to become excessively entangled in studying the religious habits and interests of its members.