Former chaplains suing US Navy, claiming religious discrimination in promotion process

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NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A 20-year-old lawsuit will soon take center stage inside Norfolk Federal Court.

The suit was filed by 27 former U.S. Navy chaplains claiming they were discriminated against by the Navy based on religion.

One of the plaintiffs is Suffolk’s Allen Lancaster, who spent 44 years in the Navy.

“From my earliest years I wanted to be in the Navy,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster enlisted in September 1956. He loved every minute of it. In 1980, he had the chance to combine his love for the Navy and his love for God by becoming a Navy chaplain.

“It was like a dream come true,” he added. “It was very rewarding.”

But there is one part of his career he wishes he could forget. He feels as if the system failed him.

“I think it did,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster’s frustration stems from what he calls the Navy’s “dirty little secret,” the promotion process for chaplains.

“From a justice standpoint, if the system is supposed to be right, I should have never been denied,” he added.

The chaplain became stuck with a rank of commander. He was passed over several times for captain.

He along with 26 other evangelical chaplains are suing the Navy, claiming religious discrimination.

“The system isn’t flawed, the system is corrupt,” said the chaplains’ attorney, Art Schulcz.

Schulcz originally filed the lawsuit in 1999, but after years of setbacks he re-filed in Norfolk Federal Court.

“I figured when I first took this case, I thought it would take 3 to 5 years,” Schulcz added. “When you show a denominational preference, the court is to show strict scrutiny.”

Schulcz believes something went wrong in the promotion process. He says chaplains up for promotions were chosen by a panel made up of other chaplains. They would go behind closed doors and use a device to vote. He says members of the panel would purposely not promote someone simply based on denominations.

“When you are relying on someone to say I prefer Catholics, or prefer Baptist, that’s forbidden,” Schulcz said. “We fought a war to get away from that type of thing.”

Navy promotions are generally based on yearly evaluation forms called “fitness report.” The highest scoring candidate should be promoted.

Lancaster’s fitness reports were flawless, but at least five times one report went missing from his file, ruining his chances. He believes someone who didn’t want to see a Christian promoted might have sabotaged him.

“It’s hard for me to explain it otherwise, because of the efforts I made to get that fitness report in there,” Lancaster added.

The Navy along with the Department of Justice, which is representing the Navy, both declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“The record is supposed to determine whether or not you stack up with others,” Schulcz said. 

A trial date has not yet been determined. 

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