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Asking for trouble

The repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' brings big challenges for the military and its chaplains

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

The first casualties of the congressional repeal of the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military may be chaplains and religious liberty.

That is the concern of both retired and active duty military chaplains after the successful push to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that has ruled the armed forces for nearly two decades. President Obama signed the repeal of the policy into law on Dec. 22.

"To say we are just repealing a 17-year-old law is highly inaccurate," says retired Navy chaplain Mark Jumper of Illinois. "We are repealing a military practice that goes back to George Washington and the American Revolution."

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Richard Young, a retired Army colonel who spent 25 years as a chaplain, notes that in Canada, where a similar policy has been in effect, chaplains are already muzzled. There they are prevented from preaching or counseling about their biblical views regarding homosexuality.

Now chaplains are afraid conservative denominations eventually may pull their support for the U.S. chaplain program, allowing the influential posts to go to more liberal denominations. Inside the military, chaplains who are open to gay unions may be the ones promoted to important positions.

Beyond chaplains, Young is concerned about all people of faith who wear the uniform in a military where chain of command and obeying orders are keys to unit effectiveness. "Leaders are going to be forced to support, as if they believe in it 110 percent, a policy that many of them may have moral and religious conflict with," Young said. "They will need more moral courage than they have ever had before."

In the Pentagon's own yearlong survey, released Dec. 1, almost 24 percent of respondents said they would leave the military or think about leaving sooner than planned if the repeal happened. That means that potentially 500,000 troops would depart. Sensing this, more than 1,000 retired military officers wrote to Congress earlier this year warning that the change would "break the all-volunteer force."

The repeal raises many uncomfortable questions: How will the military handle living and bathroom arrangements between soldiers? (The Pentagon report recommended no separation of living and showering facilities, threatening soldiers with forced intimacy.) Will the military provide the same benefits to homosexual couples as to traditional marriage partners-such as military housing and healthcare? Many expect lawsuits to be brought against service members who oppose the homosexual lifestyle.

With so much at stake, conservatives were upset that Congress held minimal hearings on the Pentagon's study and voted, with no amendments allowed, on repeal just 18 days after the complex study's release. "It is clear why this was done: not to enhance the military's ability to accomplish its mission or to enhance national security," says Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "Rather, it is a political payoff."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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