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Punished for praying while in uniform, Klingenschmitt feels he helped to change Navy policy

July 24, 2016 Updated: July 26, 2016 at 1:02 pm
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A Navy chaplain removed from the U.S. military for disobeying an order that said he couldn't pray in Jesus' name is hoping to present his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gordon Klingenschmitt said he took a stand and violated a Navy policy that said chaplains had to pray "nonsectarian"prayers in January 2006. The same policy Klingenschmitt said he was punished for violating was repealed by the secretary of the Navy several months later, in November 2006. Klingenschmitt was involuntarily separated from the Navy with an honorable discharge in March 2007, according to Klingenschmitt's petition to the Supreme Court.

Klingenschmitt was a lieutenant in the Navy with over 15 years of active duty in the military, and at the time of discharge, he was assigned to active duty in the Navy Chaplain Corps at Naval Station Norfolk. Before becoming a naval chaplain, he served in the Air Force and achieved the rank of major. Klingenschmitt is a minister who has served as a representative for the past two years in Colorado's state Legislature but lost a state Senate Republican primary last month.

Klingenschmitt said the next step is a phone conference between his lawyer and the Supreme Court justices to determine if his case will be heard at the court. If the justices agree, they will hear his case in the spring of 2017.

Klingenschmitt is being represented by attorney John Wells. Wells, a retired naval officer, has been representing clients in freedom of religion cases for 21 years, including many cases against the U.S. military.

"I felt that Klingenschmitt had been shafted by the system, and I thought he had gotten kind of a raw deal," Wells said.

Klingenschmitt said he is hoping to get his pay and years back from his career in the military. He said he lost an almost $1 million pension.

"I am hoping to get back my pension, but more importantly I am hoping the Supreme Court will protect military chaplains forever and their rights to pray and preach in Jesus' name," Klingenschmitt said.

He said that if the Supreme Court hears his case and rules in his favor, it would provide the protection military chaplains need.

"It would create a case-law precedent for the next 100 years to let military chaplains pray and preach in Jesus' name and defend everybody's religious freedom," Klingenschmitt said.

He said he isn't just worried about the rights of Christians to pray but also the rights of all other religions.

"If you are Muslim, you should be allowed to pray to Allah; if you are atheist, you should be allowed to say good luck," Klingenschmitt said. "But when I was a Christian chaplain, they said no Jesus."

The controversy began Jan. 7, 2006,when Klingenschmitt participated in a "religious observance" in Lafayette Park across from the White House and said a short prayer while in uniform, according to his petition to the Supreme Court. The media covered the religious observance, the petition said.

In December 2005, Klingenschmitt was told by the commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk that he was forbidden to pray in uniform when the media was present, his petition said. On Jan. 6, 2006, the chaplain's commanding officer modified his original order and gave him written permission to wear his uniform when participating in "religious observance," Klingenschmitt's petition said.

After his "religious observance" near the White House, Klingenschmitt said, the Navy believed he violated their policies but had offered to discipline him quietly with a letter of reprimand. He instead insisted on a court-martial.

The military judge ruled against Klingenschmitt for wearing his uniform while worshipping in public and praying in Jesus' name outside the White House, he said. The judge ruled to enforce policy, which was later repealed in November 2006, and said Klingenschmitt was not engaged in public worship, although he may have been worshipping in public, the petition to the Supreme Court said. On Sept. 29, 2006, the chief of naval personnel suspended the chaplain from performing duties effective Oct. 1, 2006, the petition said.

Although he was charged, Klingenschmitt said he still felt like he won when Congress directed the Navy to repeal policies that required "nonsectarian" prayer on Sept.25, 2006.

"I won; I feel like I was vindicated by Congress," he said. "Now all the chaplains can pray in Jesus' name, even in public, even in uniforms. They can do what I did and not be punished. I feel like I sacrificed my career for the cause of freedom for other chaplains to pray in Jesus' name."

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