Stella Maxwell
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Progressive Military Chaplains Fight Back

Progressive Military Chaplains Fight Back

A progressive military chaplains organization has condemned recent assertions by antigay groups that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is quickly eroding religious liberty for service members from conservative faith traditions.

Last week an attorney with the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund threatened legal action if Congress does not expressly prohibit same-sex weddings at military chapels or other Defense Department facilities. The legal group has also demanded that military chaplains be barred from performing such ceremonies in their official capacities; allowing them to officiate at same-sex weddings would violate the Defense of Marriage Act, they argue.

But Capt. John F. Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain and member of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, wrote in a Monday commentary that ADF's pleas are the result of antigay bigotry, not concern for religious liberty.


"Are ADF and the religious groups they represent as willing to defend the same rights and protections for others they claim for themselves?" Gundlach wrote. "Are they as willing to acknowledge the right of chaplains from gay-friendly denominations to perform gay weddings in military chapels? And are they as willing to speak up for those who suffer discrimination because they are gay? If not, their pleas for special protection from discrimination for themselves are self-serving and unworthy of consideration."

Capt. Gundlach's commentary follows a May 23 letter from 21 conservative Christian denominations to the chiefs of chaplains for the Navy, Army, and Air Force. In the letter — drafted with the help of ADF — the religious groups expressed concern over a now-suspended Navy policy allowing same-sex couples to wed on bases, and to allow military chaplains to officiate.

That policy, they wrote, went "beyond this stated intent of DADT repeal by sanctioning and normalizing the use of base chapels for same-sex unions."

"[The policy] creates an environment that is increasingly hostile to the many chaplains — and the service members they serve — whose faith groups and personal consciences recognize homosexual behavior as immoral and unsafe and do not permit same-sex unions," the groups wrote.

Rep. Todd Akin, who offered an amendment to the House defense authorization bill banning same-sex weddings at military facilities, said on a recent radio appearance of the suspended Navy policy, “It seems like the Pentagon was thinking that the U.S. law code was an à la carte menu, that they could follow one thing and ignore another one, but unfortunately they hadn’t done their homework.”


Gundlach's response to the ADF press release in full:
 

On May 23, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a group of conservative Christian attorneys, sent out a press release that could be regarded as a distress call. They stated that religious freedom in the military is at risk. At the same time, 21 conservative religious groups ADF represents sent letters to the three military Chiefs of Chaplains and to others, including the service secretaries and several rightwing members of Congress, urging the creation of special regulations to protect their right to religious free speech.

 

What are ADF and these groups afraid of? They fear that their chaplains and other military members who are anti-gay because of their religious beliefs will be discriminated against. Lifting up this perceived threat serves as a rallying cry for religious conservatives and the politicians who support them, but it’s really an S.O.S. It’s the Same Old Stuff they have been saying since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” appeared to be headed for the regulatory scrap heap.


This S.O.S. may seem real enough to them, but what are the facts? Will religious conservatives in the military no longer be able to practice their religion? Will their chaplains have to refrain from preaching against homosexuality (their term, not mine)? Not at all. Chaplains have always had the right to preach according to the tenets of the religious bodies that endorse them — and they still will. Will anti-gay chaplains be forced to conduct same-sex weddings in military chapels? Of course not. They will continue to conduct rites and sacraments as allowed by their religious bodies. And the same principle applies to conducting religious education and pastoral counseling. The one thing that every chaplain is required to do, regardless of their religious perspectives, is care for everyone. If these chaplains can’t minister to gay and lesbian service members themselves, they are obligated to refer them to another chaplain who can.


So where is the threat to religious freedom? And where could their right to free speech be limited? It will no longer be acceptable to speak about fellow gay and lesbian service members in demeaning ways in the workplace and other public settings. The fact that this has ever been acceptable by anyone anywhere, but especially by chaplains, is regrettable. And chaplains from the religious groups who are now demanding protection from discrimination have been some of the worst offenders. They, and others who agree with them, may continue to think and believe what they want, but outside of those areas where their religious speech is protected, they may now have to keep their bigotry to themselves.


I agree that religious freedom is a precious right that we must hold inviolate. It is a right that all service members serve to defend, and which all should be able to enjoy. By all, I mean those who are religiously liberal as well as those who are conservative, and by those who are gay as well as straight. Are ADF and the religious groups they represent as willing to defend the same rights and protections for others they claim for themselves? Are they as willing to acknowledge the right of chaplains from gay-friendly denominations to perform gay weddings in military chapels? And are they as willing to speak up for those who suffer discrimination because they are gay? If not, their pleas for special protection from discrimination for themselves are self-serving and unworthy of consideration.


Their continued protests are an S.O.S. in another respect too. Public attitudes toward sexual orientation and equality have changed. A recent poll conducted on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign concluded that a majority of Christians favor protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination. Eighty-six percent of respondents stated that their faith leads them to conclude that the law should treat LGBT people equally. A majority of Christians further believe that condemnation of LGBT persons by religious leaders does more harm than good.


Clearly, ADF and their conservative clients have good reason to send out an S.O.S. — their cause is sinking. As a new generation of Americans join our Armed Forces, a generation that has grown up knowing that LGBT people are no threat to their persons, their marriages, or their religion, the protests of groups like ADF and their clients will seem archaic and totally out of touch. And many will wonder why these groups don’t have a more important religious message to share.


Captain John F. Gundlach is a retired Navy chaplain who now serves as Minister for Government and Professional Chaplaincies for the United Church of Christ. He is a member of The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, a group of chaplains, military veterans, progressive ministers and lay leaders who advocate for a military chaplaincy committed to free and diverse religious expression, and to the sacred values of personal integrity, selfless compassion, respect for others, and excellence in leadership. The Forum has worked for several years, mostly behind the scenes, to fight the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy they consider harmful to the military and to religious freedom. 

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