Op-ed: Choice for Military Chaplains Not at Odds With Equality

BY Advocate Contributors

December 08 2011 5:13 PM ET

Religious
freedom and respect for individual rights are not in conflict with each other,
despite what some conservatives would have us believe. 

In
September, following the formal demise of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the
Department of Defense issued guidance making clear that military chaplains
could, consistent with their denomination or faith tradition, officiate at
wedding ceremonies for loving and committed gay and lesbian service members on
military bases in those states where such marriages are legally
recognized. 

The
hue and cry from opponents of equality that followed — while ill-informed and
misplaced — were all too predictable. 
Incredibly, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House
Armed Services Committee, threatened to oppose the annual defense authorization
bill if it did not prohibit chaplains from performing such marriage
ceremonies. To describe this
congressman’s willingness to jeopardize the critical needs of all of our troops
that are addressed in the defense authorization bill with his personal
ultimatum as unfortunate is, to put it mildly, an understatement. Such a prohibition would not only
discriminate against gay and lesbian service members, it also would impede the
ability of some chaplains to follow the dictates of their faith. Such are the
misguided priorities of some of our elected officials.

McKeon’s
position seems to suggest that the views of one faith — his faith — should be
given more weight than all others. Maybe in some forms of government that would be possible, but not in our
democracy. It is a view out of
line with my understanding of the First Amendment.

While
there are some religious denominations and faiths that strongly disapprove of
marriage for gay and lesbian couples, there are others — including sponsors of
military chaplains — that authorize their clergy members to perform marriage
ceremonies for same-gender couples or religious ceremonies blessing civil
unions. In addition, Army
regulations, for example, permit military chaplains to perform marriage
ceremonies (in accordance with state law), explaining that chaplains’
participation in these ceremonies “is in keeping with individual conscience and
distinctive faith requirements.” 

The
type of prohibition being sought by Chairman McKeon and other equality
opponents would interfere with those requirements by prohibiting chaplains
whose denominations and faiths permit such marriages from performing these
religious ceremonies. Yes, this
prohibition from supposed supporters of religious freedom actually would
curtail it.

Military
chaplains have a duty to care for all service members and facilitate the
religious requirements of personnel of all faiths.  However, chaplains — like all Americans — are protected by
the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and cannot be required to
perform any marriage ceremony that violates their religious or personal beliefs. The September Pentagon guidance made
this point clear.

Last
week the Senate, in giving final approval to the defense authorization bill,
adopted an amendment authored by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., that a military chaplain who, as a matter of conscience or moral
principle, does not wish to perform a marriage may not be required to do
so. 

The Wicker amendment — while in my mind redundant and thus
unnecessary — recognized what is already true under the First Amendment, that no
military chaplain is required by any law or government official to perform any
marriage ceremony that does not comply with the teachings and tenets of the
military chaplain’s denomination or faith. Any argument about this religious freedom provision should
be put to rest once and for all. Enough
of the faux fear. 

Permitting some military chaplains to officiate at wedding
ceremonies for gay and lesbian service members does not violate the religious
liberty of others. No chaplain
could ever be forced to perform marriage ceremonies that contradict his or her
religious or personal beliefs. 

Equality
opponents who continue to push for a sweeping prohibition blocking all military
chaplains from performing marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples no longer
have their fig leaf to hide behind. Their effort has absolutely nothing to do with protecting religious
liberty, only with perpetrating a gross misunderstanding of religious liberty.  

Make
no mistake, these people are trying to build support for discrimination against
gay and lesbian service members — men and women willing to risk their lives for
our country — but, thankfully, our Constitution will not let them do it.  People of faith and conscience should
be called to stand up and say no.

 

The Reverend
Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance and host of
State of Belief radio.
He is the author of
Same-Gender
Marriage and Religious Freedom: A Call to Quiet Conversations and Public
Debates. 

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