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Contrary to conscience

Chaplains challenged in new era of gays in the military

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

Retired Chaplain Douglas Lee, director of the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel, spent 30 years of his life walking among soldiers. He worked as a Protestant chaplain in a highly pluralistic setting, serving alongside Muslim, Buddhist, and Catholic chaplains, all exercising First Amendment freedoms.

As a chaplain he convened Bible studies and prayer meetings and did one-on-one counseling. Now he has a new task: working to protect the freedom that makes a chaplain's job possible.

On July 6 a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the U.S. government to drop the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) rule and allow openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military. Pentagon spokesmen said military officials will comply with the court order: The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have all held training sessions regarding the long-anticipated change.

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Lee, though, argues that the new arrangement could compromise chaplains' free speech and freedom of conscience, leaving them to face the tension of divided loyalties. He has joined with other retired chaplains to publicize the lack of codified protection for chaplains. Some 21 organizations, including his, sent a letter in May to the heads of each military branch, asking them to "join us in urging DOD [the Department of Defense] and Congress to adopt such specific and intentional conscience protections."

Chaplain (Col.) Ken Bush, former director of Leadership and Training at the Chaplain Center and School, cited the implementation guide for DADT's repeal and said, "No chaplain will be forced to do something contrary to their faith tradition." But Lee is concerned that, beyond training, those promises will not stand: "Many things have been said that are already being challenged."

One example: Last month, Navy Chief of Chaplains Mark Tidd announced that Navy chapels could be used for same-sex unions. "That is a direct affront to all the promises that had been given," Lee said, emphasizing that the announcement directly challenges the Defense of Marriage Act's protection of church buildings. Lee calls the military an establishment built on trust-but such announcements have shaken his confidence: "None of the things that were said have any basis in law or policy . . . they are just promises made that are not codified any place."

Lee and others are concerned that advocates for homosexuality will move swiftly to create a pro-gay environment: "We see how the GLBT community has worked in the civilian United States," he said. "They are eager to challenge any group or persons who might suggest that homosexuality is immoral or wrong. . . . We assume they'll want to apply those same tactics and principles in the military and have federal protection for it."

The judicial battle is not necessarily over. The 9th U.S. Circuit has scheduled an August 29 hearing to consider a government appeal of an earlier court decision-but U.S. officials may not pursue the appeal, since Pentagon personnel already have said they'll stop enforcing DADT.

Legislative debates may also continue. Three amendments regarding DADT have passed the House Committee on Armed Services. One, introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., would require the approval of the service branches' chiefs for the repeal to go into effect. A second, coming from Rep. Vicky Hartlzler, R-Minn., would reaffirm the Defense of Marriage Act. The third amendment, from Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would protect military personnel from having to perform same-sex marriages on base.

Lee says Christian chaplains aren't planning on leaving because of DADT's repeal-but without explicit conscience protection, staying could become much harder.

-Tiffany Owens is a New York journalist

Tiffany Owens
Tiffany Owens

Tiffany is a correspondent for WORLD News Group.

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