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

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


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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