Chaplains disrespecting religious liberty

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When Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell sails off into its well-deserved sunset, gay and lesbian military personnel will be able to get married to members of their own sex without being cashiered, should they be fortunate enough to be posted in a state where same-sex marriage is allowed. But they won’t be able to get married on their military bases, if the House version of the current Defense Authorization Act passes. That’s because, thanks to newbie Rep. Vicky Harzler (R-Mo.), there’s a provision barring Defense Department employees from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies on military property.

You’d think that all those who hold religious libery dear would be up in arms. After all, if a soldier or sailor wishes to solemnize his or her marriage with a religious ceremony, how could that invoke anything other than the same free-exercise justification that permits the U.S. government to hire military chaplains, build chapels, and otherwise subsidize religious practices in the military? But au contraire, comes now a letter from a group of “endorsing agents” representing various conservative denominations (including that exemplar of devotion to religious liberty, the Southern Baptist Convention), claiming that it is their own religious liberty that is threatened by permitting same-sex marriage ceremonies on a military base:

No American, especially those serving in the armed forces, should be forced to abandon their religious beliefs or be marginalized for holding to those beliefs. It is not sufficient to posit, as the [Comprehensive Review Working Group] report did, that chaplains and service members remain free to exercise their faith in chapel services. Service members should know that chaplains’ ministry and their own rights of conscience remain protected everywhere military necessity has placed them. We hope that you will join us in urging DoD and Congress to adopt such specific and intentional conscience protections.

In other words, the conscience protections of military personnel–non-chaplains as well as chaplains–include the right not to have to serve under a moral regime condemned by their respective religious organizations. By this standard, selling contraceptives on Army bases would violate the religious liberty of Catholics. Likewise permitting alcohol and dancing for personnel whose faith groups and personal consciences forswear such tools of Satan.

The protesting chaplains are not wrong to see the end of DADT as posing a challenge to those “whose faith groups and personal consciences recognize homosexual behavior as immoral and unsafe and do not permit same-sex unions.” But there are many such challenges in a pluralistic society. Rather than adopt a transparently self-serving interpretation of the First Amendment, the chaplains would do better to stand up for the religious liberty interests of gay and lesbian service personnel against the Hartzler provision, if for no other reason than that, in American society today, opposition to same-sex marriage has become a minority position. Some day soon, they may need all the allies they can get.

  • Nakoa

    “if for no other reason than…opposition to same-sex marriage has become a minority position.”
    This is exactly the WRONG reason for a chaplain or any other religious leader to take a position on any issue. An utterly preposterous statement.
    Mr. Silk make several excellent points, however. Religious leaders should be about love and healing. This means viewing gays and lesbians — even if they consider their lifestyle as highly immoral — with compassion.
    Chaplains, of course have a unique role, different from other religious leaders. Even if they cannot find it within their good conscience to officiate gay MARRIAGES, I would hope, that as emissaries of a loving deity, they would support civil gay UNIONS and be on the forefront of fighting any unequal and mis-treatment of gays and lesbians under their auspices.

  • Mark Silk

    I mistakenly deleted some valid comments. Sorry, James. Here they are:
    Everyone should be alarmed if one religious group is hi-jacking chaplain policy — after all chaplains need to serve an ever diverse group of military faithful.
    However, is Mr. Silk proposing that chaplains must follow a least common denominator policy? This doesn’t make a great deal of sense, for in the end anything would go, anything would be acceptable, making chaplains meaningless irreligious jokes… officiators of voodoo, witchcraft, and what-have-you.
    This is a difficult question, it is certainly not as simple as Mr. Silk makes it seem. Yes, gays and lesbians should not be mis-treated or discriminated against. However, I think there is a fair argument that can be made by those of good conscience that this does not mean gay marriage should necessarily be endorsed.
    Commenter name: James S.
    “‘if for no other reason than…opposition to same-sex marriage has become a minority position.’
    “This is exactly the WRONG reason for a chaplain or any other religious leader to take a position on any issue. An utterly preposterous statement.”
    I agree with Nakoa here. When religious doctrine is defined by popular opinion, nothing good comes from that. This isn’t a popularity contest.
    Commenter name: James S.