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Concern and uncertainty

Military | The repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' leads to many freedom of religion questions

WASHINGTON-Retired Navy chaplain Mark Jumper of Illinois has spent the last several days poring over emails from other military chaplains across the country. The tone of these messages is mostly the same: concern mixed with uncertainty.

The subject: the Senate's vote Saturday to repeal the military's 17-year ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces. Less than two weeks ago the Senate rejected a similar effort to strike down the law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." That vote seemed to mark the end of debate for the year.

But pro-repeal lawmakers from both parties brought the issue back from the dead on Saturday. This time they introduced the repeal as a separate, stand-alone bill-not attached to a larger Pentagon spending measure as before-and succeeded. Now President Barack Obama plans to sign the bill into law on Wednesday.

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"Many, many chaplains are writing that this will be highly problematic for our nation," Jumper said. "To say we are just repealing a 17-year-old law is highly inaccurate. We are repealing a military practice that goes back to George Washington and the American Revolution."

The questions they are asking are many: Will chaplains be allowed to preach on what the Bible says about homosexuality without being accused of hate speech? Will conservative denominations pull their endorsement of chaplains?

"We are worried that they are casting freedom of religion versus civil rights," said Jumper. "It could lead to a chilling effect on the freedom of religion."

Jumper was one of more than 80 retired chaplains who signed a letter earlier this year to Obama warning that repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would turn "Christians-both chaplains and servicemen-into second-class soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines." Jumper said some chaplains are already talking about leaving the military.

Many expect lawsuits to be brought against service members who oppose the homosexual lifestyle.

"We hope that our nation's leaders will work to ensure that none of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are ever made to choose between serving their country or obeying their God as result of this damaging policy decision," said Alliance Defense Fund's Daniel Blomberg.

The Pentagon has assured chaplains that they can still preach what they believe. But Jumper predicts that chaplains will face pressure from on-the-ground commanders to get along with the military's program and not rock the boat for the sake of unit cohesion.

These are not the only warnings that lawmakers ignored: More than 1,000 retired military officers wrote that the change would "break the all-volunteer force."

And earlier this month Marine Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine commandant, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that repeal would have a strong potential for disruption and divert leadership attention and resources away from preparing units for combat.

In the Pentagon's own yearlong survey, released Dec. 1, the military's combat units-the tip of the military's spear-echoed Amos. Nearly 60 percent of Marine and Army combat forces responded that there would be a negative impact to their units if the policy were repealed. That number climbs to almost 67 percent of those serving in Marine combat arms.

Moments before Saturday's vote, Sen. John McCain said, "I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage. Today is a very sad day."

Eight Republican senators voted for repeal.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, criticized lawmakers for allowing no time for substantive hearings to examine findings of the Pentagon's comprehensive Dec. 1 report.

"A thorough reading of the entire report and its recommendations reveals not a single point or argument showing consequences that would benefit the all-volunteer force," she said.

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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