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 CNS Story:

CONGRESS-CHAPLAINS Oct-4-2006 (530 words) xxxn

Proposal on chaplains' prayers could hurt military, archbishop says

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A congressional proposal that would have guaranteed the right of military chaplains to pray according to their conscience could also have had an "adverse effect on unit cohesion" and even result in a ban on all public prayer in the military, according to the head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said in a Sept. 21 letter to U.S. Catholic chaplains that a proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 "would seek to impose a legislative mandate for military chaplains without considering the religious needs of all military members."

"We believe this legislation may well result in less public prayer and marginalization of military chaplains," he added.

Although the House approved the mandate, the Senate did not. House-Senate conferees agreed Sept. 29 to replace the House language with a section overturning current Air Force and Navy regulations that restricted prayers specific to one faith at public military ceremonies.

Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and sponsor of the proposed amendment, said that if he is re-elected he would introduce legislation that explicitly protects chaplains' rights to pray according to their conscience.

"While I would have liked stronger language protecting the religious freedom of chaplains, this legislation is a first step forward in protecting the First Amendment rights of chaplains and all the men and women serving our country in the military," he said in a statement.

But Archbishop O'Brien said the legislation would have elevated "the so-called 'rights' of a military chaplain above those of the military and its people."

"Our military is a pluralistic society that relies heavily on unit cohesion," he wrote. "When military chaplains, who are assigned as chaplains for the entire unit, are called upon to deliver public prayer to mandatory attended gatherings, they are speaking with some form of command sanction.

"This legislation would appear to give the 'right' to a chaplain to decide independently to use denominational-specific prayer in any setting," Archbishop O'Brien added. "To avoid the obvious adverse effect on unit cohesion that such activity would cause, it is entirely possible that commanders, who are ultimately responsible to protect the free exercise of religion for all their people, would decide to dispense with public prayer entirely. Our military would not be well served by this turn of events."

Archbishop O'Brien said military chaplains will continue to have the right to pray as they see fit at voluntarily attended worship services.

The military archdiocese "has long been an advocate for the constitutional rights of military chaplains to preach in accordance with their religious convictions when preaching to their congregations," he said.

The archdiocese "vigorously supported the efforts of Air Force chaplains Father Vincent Rigdon and Rabbi David Kay in their litigation against the then-secretary of defense (William J. Perry) when these dedicated military chaplains were ordered not to preach to their congregations about legislation banning partial-birth abortion," Archbishop O'Brien noted.

"We were most gratified when the federal judge held impermissible the military attempts to restrict or limit military chaplains who were performing their duties as clergy conducting voluntarily attended worship services," he added.


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