'Don't Ask Don't Tell' and Military Chaplains

Forty-one retired chaplains recently wrote the president and Secretary of Defense, imploring them not to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" statute. We find their core argument astonishing; i.e., any new law barring discrimination against gays and lesbians would violate the free-exercise clause of the 1st Amendment; it would infringe upon the chaplains' rights to discriminate in accordance with their fundamental religious belief that gays are "immoral," and that same sex relationships are "harmful and sinful."

Such a change, these evangelical chaplains argue, would "threaten" their religious liberty, and thwart "their ability to freely share their religious beliefs." Moreover, they contend chaplains would be forced to avoid or abandon key elements of their faith and practice, which they bemoan, is "the very antithesis of religious freedom."

We strongly disagree. The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would have absolutely no effect whatsoever on chaplains' duties, roles and responsibilities. The chaplain corps exists not for chaplains to practice exclusively their own religious beliefs, but to ensure that all service members, including chaplains, can exercise their faith. Military regulations ensure that chaplains, in fact, may preach and teach the theological and moral tenets of their distinctive faith groups, but only in the context of ministry and worship for those who voluntarily participate. Further, if a chaplain's theological or ecclesiastical views preclude performing pastoral ministries to which a service member is entitled, the chaplain remains duty bound to provide assistance to the service member through appropriate referral to another chaplain who can and will perform the requested services.

Chaplains are trained to be pluralistic -- to ensure that all service members can obtain spiritual guidance, counseling, and access to their religion in accordance with the tenets of their faith. Fully qualified clergy who are endorsed for the military chaplaincy by their denomination or faith group swear at the time of their commissioning to minister within the military's pluralistic and multicultural setting. They must respect the rights of others to hold and practice religious and moral values different from their own. The common denominator for all members of the military is the Uniform Code of Military Justice which governs behavior and conduct, though it does not attempt to regulate matters of religion and culture.

Perhaps these forty-one chaplains have lost sight of the purpose of the chaplain corps. They seem to believe the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment is their exclusive and absolute right without regard to the constitutional rights and liberties of the troops whom they are called to serve. How else can they argue, with apparent sincerity, that their own free exercise of religion supersedes anti-discrimination laws? Under such a theory, President Truman would have been unable to integrate blacks into the armed forces, for many chaplains then believed that integration was sinful, and against God's wishes. Years later, the military would not have been permitted to recognize interracial marriage, which many believed violated scripture. Or, what if another group of chaplains adhere to the scriptural punishment of death by stoning for children who talk back to their parents? Does their sincere religious belief shield them from criminal responsibility for throwing stones at a stubborn and disrespectful child?

It is not our place to argue that these forty-one chaplains have a flawed theology. They are free to believe what they choose, but they are not free to force others to submit to their beliefs. We have met many gays and lesbians whose religious beliefs embrace love as a supreme ethical virtue, and for whom a committed same-sex relationship is sacrosanct and the central focus of their spiritual lives. We cannot conceive of any reason why the 1st Amendment should not equally protect their sincere beliefs.

Our collective experience as chaplains in the Army, Navy and Air Force convinces us that the Constitution's free-exercise clause extends religious freedom until it interferes with another's right to practice their religion and conscientious beliefs, or until it violates the law. Accordingly, military chaplains are free to practice a fundamentally exclusive theology until it infringes upon the rights of others who adhere to a more inclusive and affirming spirituality.

These forty-one chaplains, as all military chaplains, gave their oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Their oath is not to uphold the Bible, nor to uphold laws only insofar as such are consistent with their particular understanding of the Bible. Simply put, in matters of civil, criminal and military law, the Bible does not trump the Constitution. If federal law bars discrimination against gays in the military, then all service members, regardless of their faith, must abide by the rule of law.

It bears repeating that the chaplain corps exists but for one purpose and one purpose alone: to secure the free exercise of religion for all of America's service members. Chaplains cannot proselytize, nor can they put their own beliefs above those of others. And, they most certainly cannot castigate, ridicule or repress others in the free exercise of their values and beliefs.

In their letter, these forty-one chaplains complain that an anti-discrimination clause would morally compel them to resign. In their own words, they lament that "chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men." This argument is as dangerous as it is disingenuous. We have little concern of some threatened mass exodus of evangelical chaplains from the military. But, perhaps chaplains who are unable or unwilling to obey the rule of law and honor the Constitution should resign. And, for those who do, our military and the chaplaincy will be stronger as nothing weakens morale and unit cohesion more than bigotry and unjust discrimination.

Ironically, these forty-one chaplains must sense that their long held and archaic attitudes of sexual supremacy and discrimination are unacceptable societal values either in or out of the military. That underlying fear is best expressed in their own words: "By raising homosexual behavior to the same protected status as innate, innocuous characteristics like race and gender, the armed forces will cast the sincerely held religious beliefs of many chaplains and service members as rank bigotry comparable to racism."

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