- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner is blocking a House defense bill provision that would give military chaplains more freedom to pray as they see fit, saying he wants to put the matter off until 2007, a stance that angers House Republicans and conservative groups.

“It’s so important. Should two or three members of Congress try to resolve it when there’s many people who want to be involved?” Mr. Warner, Virginia Republican, said yesterday.

He said he hasn’t taken a position on the language itself, but will “strongly recommend” House and Senate hearings on the dispute early next year.

The prayer provision is one of about three issues delaying a final agreement on the defense bill, he said.

House Republicans and conservative grass-roots groups accuse Mr. Warner of blocking their efforts to resolve a big problem. Many Republican lawmakers have long complained that military chaplains feel restricted in how they can pray publicly and have been encouraged by higher-ups in some instances not to pray in Jesus’ name.

A blogger on redstate.com yesterday afternoon posted a comment that read: “What Does John Warner Have Against Jesus? Excuse Me, I Meant J***s.”

Mr. Warner said that he is being “besieged” by bloggers and phone calls but that he takes issue with anyone who questions his faith.

“I just will stand my ground against anyone who wishes to challenge my religion,” he said.

At the heart of the fight is language added to the House defense bill by Republican Reps. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Todd Akin of Missouri and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter of California.

The provision establishes that, in each branch of the military, chaplains “shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity.”

Whenever such military necessity is cited, the language said, it would be “imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”

The Senate didn’t include such language in its version of defense bill. Differences are being worked out in negotiations.

“Senator Warner maybe doesn’t understand the depth of the issue,” Mr. Jones said yesterday, adding that military chaplains have told him repeatedly that they were denied the right to publicly pray in Jesus’ name.

“I don’t know how anybody could be opposed to any chaplain — be they Jewish, Muslim, Christian — being able to pray based on the tenets of their faith,” he said.

But Mr. Warner said that the Defense Department opposes the House language and that senior chaplain officials have told him that they’ve been able to do their jobs for years without Congress intervening. Mr. Warner said before Congress forges ahead and writes such a law, “all views” should be considered.

He said House Democrats have alternative language that would clarify that chaplains should demonstrate “sensitivity, respect and tolerance for all faiths present” when they pray publicly. Mr. Warner hasn’t decided which language he supports.

But Mr. Akin, in a blog yesterday afternoon, said such an approach “would replace religious freedom with misguided attempts at religious tolerance and prevent chaplains from praying as they feel they ought.”

Mr. Jones said Mr. Warner should hear more stories like that of Capt. Jonathan Stertzbach, a Christian Army chaplain serving in Iraq, who told The Washington Times early this year that he and chaplains of other faiths were being pressured to offer only nonsectarian prayers. He was silenced by his supervisors soon after his public statements.

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