Friday, May 12, 2006

House Injects Prayer Into Defense Bill; Evangelical Christian groups demand that chaplains pray in the name of Jesus, and disregard other faiths
House Injects Prayer Into Defense Bill
By Alan Cooperman and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers

The House passed a $513 billion defense authorization bill yesterday that includes language intended to allow chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus at public military ceremonies, undercutting new Air Force and Navy guidelines on religion.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 396 to 31, also contains significant adjustments to the Pentagon's original request, mainly by shifting hundreds of millions of dollars toward military personnel -- in the form of troop increases, protective gear and health-care benefits -- and away from new weapons systems. The measure includes $50 billion for next year's cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're not a rubber stamp," House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Ike Skelton (Mo.) told reporters.

Before the bill reached the House floor, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee added the provision on military chaplains. It says each chaplain "shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible."

Air Force and Navy rules issued in recent months allow chaplains to pray as they wish in voluntary worship services. But the rules call for nonsectarian prayers, or a moment of silence, at public meetings or ceremonies, especially when attendance is mandatory for service members of all faiths.

Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and other evangelical Christian groups have lobbied vigorously against the Air Force and Navy rules, urging President Bush to issue an executive order guaranteeing the right of chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus under any circumstances. Because the White House has not acted, sympathetic members of Congress stepped in.

"We felt there needed to be a clarification" of the rules "because there is political correctness creeping into the chaplains corps," said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). "I don't understand anyone being opposed to a chaplain having the freedom to pray to God in the way his conscience calls him to pray."

Among the provision's opponents is the chief of Navy chaplains, Rear Adm. Louis V. Iasiello, a Roman Catholic priest.

"The language ignores and negates the primary duties of the chaplain to support the religious needs of the entire crew" and "will, in the end, marginalize chaplains and degrade their use and effectiveness," Iasiello wrote in a letter to a committee member.

The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, a private association of religious groups that provide more than 70 percent of U.S. chaplains, also objected to the language. "Chaplains represent their faith communities and we endorse them to represent that faith community with integrity and loyalty to that tradition, not to the dictates of their individual conscience," the association's executive committee wrote.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the language "divisive." Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment to add that chaplains should show "sensitivity, respect and tolerance for all faiths," but it was defeated on a party-line vote in committee, and the Rules Committee did not allow floor debate on the chaplaincy provision.

On military manpower, the bill boosts the authorized strength of the active-duty Army by 30,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 5,000 Marines. In addition, it adds $318 million to fully fund the Army National Guard's 350,000 troop positions -- rejecting a Pentagon bid to fund only those positions that are filled, or some 17,000 fewer slots.

The proposed cut in National Guard funding "didn't make sense. It was actually a slap at the National Guard," Skelton said. "It would send a terrible message that you guys don't count."

Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R) of California said he believes the Army National Guard will succeed in recruiting enough soldiers to raise its ranks to 350,000. "We're more optimistic about recruiting than they are," he said of defense officials.

The bill also adds $471 million to pay for Tricare health-care benefits and other programs for the National Guard, while blocking the Pentagon's proposed fee increases for some Tricare recipients.

The measure includes several items intended to bolster protection for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, including $109.7 million for jamming devices in vehicles to disrupt radio-detonated IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, and $100 million for surveillance aircraft to patrol roads.

At the same time, lawmakers trimmed some major weapons programs, making cuts of $326 million from the Army's Future Combat Systems and $183.5 million from missile defense.

The bill also slows the development of a new presidential helicopter and requires manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. to restore an alternative engine to the aircraft.

And it delays the retirement of B-52 bombers and F-117 stealth attack aircraft to allow more time for alternatives to be fielded.