Friday, September 29, 2006

House Republicans said the defense authorization bill will address, at least for now, their belief that military chaplains should not be pressured to avoid using specifics of their faiths during public prayers.

Republican House members and aides said they were told that part of the massive final defense measure will freeze the recent Navy and Air Force chaplain prayer policies that call for nonsectarian prayers outside religious services.

But the defense bill was still caught up yesterday in other disagreements and it was unclear whether the House and Senate would approve it before they leave town.

Reps. Todd Akin, Missouri Republican, J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, all said this week they were told the prayer-issue disagreement in the defense bill was resolved.

Mr. Akin said they agreed to drop tougher language they had included in the House version of the defense bill that would have clearly stated military chaplains are free to use Jesus’ name or other religious specifics in their prayers, and shouldn’t be pressured to do otherwise. Instead, Mr. Akin and others said, the defense bill will roll back restrictive prayer guidelines.

“It’s been at least temporarily resolved, ” Mr. Akin said, but that he would likely push his original language again next year.

Mr. Forbes, who served as the go-between for the House Republicans and the defense bill negotiators, said he heard the negotiators agreed to accept the compromise language. All of the House Republicans stressed that no agreement will be final until the defense bill itself is completed.

“All we’re doing is telling them to go back to the policy they had for 200-plus years,” Mr. Forbes said of the Air Force and Navy.

The Air Force policy says: “Public prayer should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be a part of routine official business.” Navy regulations say prayers should be nonsectarian in nature outside of religious services.

The office of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner wouldn’t confirm all of this, but the Virginia Republican wrote in a letter yesterday that issues between the House and Senate versions of the defense bill have been “mutually resolved” and the only remaining squabble is that House leaders now want to attach several other bills to the final defense bill.

Mr. Warner didn’t like Mr. Akin’s original prayer language and argued the contentious issue should instead be addressed in hearings next year, in part because top chaplain leaders oppose Mr. Akin’s approach.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans were happy with the chaplain prayer compromise, but said more must be done.

“I think it’s a step towards a solution,” Mr. Akin said. “It’s a victory for free speech but it doesn’t solve it.”

Mr. Akin and others like Mr. Jones, have long complained that chaplains say they have been pressured by military authorities to pray general public prayers and avoid using Jesus’ name or other specifics of their faiths. The lawmakers said the recent Air Force and Navy guidelines essentially codified this.

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