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Fighting about praying

October 05, 2006

WOODY ALLEN OFTEN RECOUNTED how his life was saved by his habit of carrying a bullet in his left breast pocket. A "berserk evangelist" once threw a Bible out of a second-story window, and it struck him in the chest, he said. "That Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn't for that bullet."

Allen's joke is more deft than the way a House-Senate conference committee resolved a divisive debate about whether military chaplains should be allowed to pray "in Jesus' name" before a religiously mixed audience.

In approving a defense authorization bill, the conference committee dodged a bullet -- and a Bible -- by rejecting language in the House version saying that "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."

That language, the result of a lobbying campaign by some evangelical Christian groups, would have threatened the sensible status quo. Currently, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim chaplains may conduct denominational services for their own flocks, but they employ more generic language when called upon to solemnize occasions attended by service members of all faiths. This arrangement was defended by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, which represents most military chaplains.

The proposed change in the law came after some evangelicals objected to recent guidelines issued by the Air Force and Navy designed to curb aggressive proselytizing. The Air Force guidelines said that "public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business." The Navy guidelines said that "every religious ministry professional must be willing to function in a pluralistic environment in the military, where diverse religious traditions exist side-by-side with tolerance and respect."

Unfortunately, although it resisted the effort to allow more denominational prayer at mixed gatherings, the conference committee gave evangelical activists a consolation prize: It nullified these Navy and Air Force guidelines, sending officials in those branches back to the drawing board.

This is mischievous micromanagement. Having rightly decided not to disturb current federal statutes that govern chaplains, Congress should have refused to tinker with guidelines designed to preserve the law's distinction between a chaplain's sectarian role and his larger duty to the armed services. It's hard to say "Amen" to that mixed message.

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