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Kicked-out sailors claim religious intolerance

Dec. 23, 2012 - 02:14PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 23, 2012 - 02:14PM  |  
Graig Mitchell, left, and Tracy Davis pose on the morning of Mitchell's baptism. Both were kicked out of the Navy for refusing orders; they claim they were unfairly asked to work on the Sabbath after expressing their religious objections.
Graig Mitchell, left, and Tracy Davis pose on the morning of Mitchell's baptism. Both were kicked out of the Navy for refusing orders; they claim they were unfairly asked to work on the Sabbath after expressing their religious objections. (Family photo)
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If you have a religious need, put in a request with your commanding officer or another leader who is authorized to grant liberty.
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Four sailors who served on the carrier Nimitz are speaking out, claiming they were persecuted for their religion and booted from the Navy after refusing to work Saturdays, their Sabbath day.

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Four sailors who served on the carrier Nimitz are speaking out, claiming they were persecuted for their religion and booted from the Navy after refusing to work Saturdays, their Sabbath day.

To share their story, three of these sailors turned to their local TV news, ABC 23 in Bakersfield, Calif., claiming religious intolerance. They also wrote their congressmen. And now they say they're considering legal action.

But are these sailors victims or were they shirking their duties?

Navy documents show the men repeatedly disobeyed orders. In most of their cases, they were granted accommodations for their religion and were denied only after they either broke the rules or were underway, when their skills were needed to help their shipmates.

Former seamen Cedric Davis, Tracy Davis and Graig Mitchell, all logistics specialists, are Seventh-day Adventists. While on ship, Cedric Davis converted Kylee Dixon, a cryptologic technician maintenance seaman.

Seventh-day Adventism is a Christian denomination. It differs from many other forms of Christianity in that the Sabbath is celebrated on Saturday instead of Sunday. From sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, Adventists are not permitted to work.

"This is our belief, it is our faith. This is what keeps us going, the very thing that drives us," Mitchell told Navy Times. "To take that away, it's something we can't really give up."

Cedric and Tracy Davis are brothers. Cedric served just shy of his four-year commitment when he was kicked out Oct. 12 with a general discharge.

Tracy Davis and Mitchell were both kicked out Oct. 18. Dixon was discharged Oct. 5.

Cedric Davis said his faith became a problem shortly after moving to his unit in May. He filed paperwork for weekends off, and it was approved, according to papers he provided to Navy Times.

During the Sabbath, he would pray, go to chapel and study the Bible with other Adventists.

But he went on an unauthorized absence in late August. According to him, there was a family crisis. When he returned to base, the master chief in charge of the beach detachment asked him to write a letter explaining his absence.

"I made myself prepared to deal and accept whatever the Navy saw fit to give me," he wrote in the letter, which he provided to Navy Times.

But Cedric Davis, as a punitive measure, was put on 45 days restriction, requiring him to muster several times a day in formation to recite the Sailor's Creed even on Saturdays.

Cedric Davis refused to do that on the Sabbath; he considered it work and a violation of his religion. Capt. Jeffrey Ruth, skipper of the Nimitz, invited him to submit a new request for religious accommodation to be excused from muster; it was denied. Ruth declined to speak to Navy Times about the issue.

But in correspondence to a congressman who had inquired about the Davis brothers' case, Ruth explained the request was denied because the sailor was being punished.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had written Ruth to ask about the sailor's claims of religious intolerance. Cedric Davis provided a copy of Ruth's response.

The sailor was ultimately separated for what the Navy described as a "pattern of misconduct." Because he received a general discharge, he lost his medical and education benefits.

Other cases

Tracy Davis and Mitchell had similar experiences. Tracy Davis requested Saturdays off in fall 2011. Mitchell, who learned about the faith from Cedric Davis onboard Nimitz, became an Adventist in October 2011 and was baptized in September.

Neither had a problem observing the Sabbath until Nimitz got underway in September for a training exercise.

The first Saturday the carrier was out to sea, Mitchell and Davis were still asleep when another sailor woke them. Both were ordered to work, but Tracy Davis said they refused, citing their religion.

These sailors were also put on restriction and, like Cedric Davis, continued to refuse to muster. They eventually were discharged for misconduct (serious offense), according to their discharge papers.

Ruth, in his written reply to McCarthy, stressed that Tracy Davis was not kicked out for his religion but rather his refusal to follow directions.

Dixon was converted to the religion by Cedric Davis in August. Dixon too requested Saturdays off but was denied by his chain of command. Dixon said he felt the command did not take his conversion seriously.

Dixon was discharged as a cryptologic technician maintenance seaman. It was unclear what kind of discharge he received.

Religion rules

The Navy can grant religious exceptions for sailors, but it's not obligated to, explained Capt. Jim Denley, director for policy for the Chief of Navy Chaplains.

"Our policy instructs the CO to consider the impact of the request on military readiness, unit readiness, unit cohesion, safety, discipline and mission accomplishment," he said.

There are 172 active-duty sailors and 25 reservists who self-identify as Seventh-day Adventists, Denley said; sailors are asked about their faith only when they enter the Navy and can decline to answer.

Because decisions on religious accommodations are made at a local level, the Chief of Navy Chaplains officer did not have information on how many Seventh-day Adventist sailors are receiving accommodations.

The sailors booted from Nimitz said they're considering legal action likely an "uphill battle," said Heather Weaver, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

In March 2011, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Postal Service did not have to give Seventh-day Adventist workers the day off on Saturday because it would cause an undue burden, Weaver said. When it comes to service members, courts often defer to the military's judgment, she said.

The sailors may even have trouble finding supporters within their own faith. Gary Councell, a retired Army chaplain and the director of the Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries in North America, said he respected the men for standing up for their beliefs, but defended the Navy.

"I can't judge these young men, but I think that there are ways to practice Seventh-day Adventism under any circumstance," Councell said. "If you can't vary faith in any way, it's going to be a problem for you if you're in the military. Maybe that's not the place for you, and the commander did the right thing."

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