At the screening for staffers at the Library of Congress, Congressman Walter Jones stepped up to the podium before the film and told the audience about the bill he hopes to get through Congress. At present, the bill (H.R. 268) reads as follows:
“To amend title 10, United States Code, to ensure that every military chaplain has
the prerogative to close a prayer outside of a religious service according to the
dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience.”
The bill has come up before and not passed, but Congressman Jones indicated that he was garnering support. So it would not be surprising if it were to come up again soon with no change. Jordan Sekulow, a spokesman for the American Center for Law and Justice. told the audience at the Library of Congress that the ACLJ was working with Congressman Jones on this. Since we weren’t taking notes at the screening, we contacted the ACLJ to get all the facts straight. “ACLJ lawyers have been engaged in the best way to draft the legislation and helped craft the worded of H.R. 268,” according to ACLJ spokesman Todd Shearer. He added that the ACLJ supports the current bill.
In the discussion that followed, two retired chaplains made the point the ministry in the military is very different from ministry in the civilian world. Both vehemently agreed with one of the chaplains featured in the documentary, Ben Sandford, who stated that when he conducts a service he prays in Jesus’ name “and no one will tell me not to.” But, he adds, “when I am afforded the privilege of getting on the ship-wide announcement system every evening we’re at sea, I don’t have the right to impose my Christianity on those who are forced to listen. I came up with a little catch phrase that I ended all my prayers with. I simply said, ‘now God I ask that you give strength to those who watch and rest to those who sleep. Amen.”
In his remarks, the spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund argued that military chaplains are responsible toward all the men and women in their care, regardless of their faith background. He reiterated the chaplaincy motto “perform or provide” — that chaplains should perform religious functions for which they are ordained and, when asked for something outside their ordainment, then they need to provide another chaplain or clergy who can. A classic example is baptism: some denominations require baptism by immersion, others by sprinkling. If a Roman Catholic chaplain gets asked by a Southern Baptist for a baptism by immersion, then he is to provide for the soldier by getting a chaplain who can do this. Not that this is always possible in every case, as the retired chaplains pointed out. In war, there just aren’t that many (if any) other chaplains around.
How does this relate to the prayer bill? Well, we have to weigh the effects that it would have in the context of a military at war. So the bill needs to be voted on by people who understand the needs of the troops and the delicate balance that military chaplains negotiate every day between their role as military officers and as religious clergy in order to meet those needs. And if our representatives don’t have time to grasp what is at stake here, we have to do it for them and tell them how to vote.