RICHMOND (Capital News Service)—Like other members of the National Guard, chaplains enter war zones and risk death on the battlefield. But at least two characteristics set these men and women apart from other members of their units.
First, instead of guns, chaplains are armed largely with prayers and comforting words for their compatriots.
And second, they don’t receive the tuition assistance that other members of the National Guard enjoy. That’s because, under the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, Virginia won’t pay for chaplains’ religious education.
Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-32) wants to change that. For the second consecutive year, he has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow the state to provide tuition assistance to chaplains for their religious training or theological education.
And for the second year in a row, Greason’s proposal languishes in a committee.
Chaplains are leaders in the Guard, responsible for caring for the spiritual well-being of soldiers and their families. They provide advice in matters pertaining to religion, morals and morale. They minister to soldiers daily, performing religious ceremonies, counseling soldiers during times of crisis and providing a spiritual compass.
For their service, chaplains do get some financial help.
They can receive up to $40,000 from the federal Chaplain Loan Repayment Program to help pay off education loans. They also benefit from the Montgomery GI Bill (another federal program), medical and dental care, low-cost life insurance, tax-free shopping, free military air flights and a retirement plan.
But they are excluded from certain financial benefits because of provisions in the Virginia Constitution.
Other members of the National Guard can receive help under programs such as Federal Tuition Assistance, Montgomery GI Bill, Post-9/11 GI Bill, Army National Guard Kicker, Student Loan Repayment Program and a variety of scholarships. The Guard can pay up to 100 percent of a member’s college tuition and fees of up to $4,500 per year.
Greason, who served in the Virginia National Guard from 2000 to 2003, said the Guard has a shortage of chaplains. He said the Guard sought his help “in finding a way to provide tuition assistance to their chaplain candidates in hopes of offsetting the high cost of a divinity degree.”
“Unfortunately, there is a clause in the Virginia Constitution that roughly says, ‘A National Guard soldier can receive tuition assistance for any subject, except theology and religious study.’ The opponents of our effort say that we can’t use state money to pay for religious study, citing the separation of church and state,” Greason said on his website.
“This seems to highlight a huge conflict in my mind: I guess it is OK to use state money to pay for the National Guard chaplain to serve in the Guard; we just can’t use state money to properly train and educate our chaplains.”
So this legislative session, Greason proposed House Joint Resolution 9 (HJR9), which would amend the section on education in the Virginia Constitution. The proposed amendment says:
“The General Assembly may provide for loans to, and grants to or on behalf of, students attending nonprofit institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth whose primary purpose is to provide religious training or theological education, provided the students are approved candidates for the chaplaincy of any active duty or reserve component of the United States Armed Forces, including the Virginia National Guard.”
Greason submitted an identical resolution in 2011. That year, the House Privileges and Elections Committee endorsed it, and the House voted 62-32 for the proposed constitutional amendment. However, it died in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
This year, Greason’s resolution is awaiting action by the House Privileges and Elections Committee. Time is running out: The proposal will die if the House doesn’t approve it by next Tuesday – the deadline for each chamber to complete work on its own legislation.
[Capital News Service is an entity of Virginia Commonwealth University.]