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 [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.