Progressive Religion to the Rescue

Could it be that federal support for same-sex marriage will get a running start in the military? Progressive chaplains are in the vanguard of those seeking equal rights for all. Stranger things have happened.
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The happy hoopla surrounding the lifting of Don't Ask, Don't Tell had a shadow side. Close inspection revealed a lot of partners and spouses of LGBTIQ military people who had been cloaked in secrecy and euphemism ("Meet my cousin") for years. Now they, too, can come out. But they remain second-class citizens whose marriages don't count because of the Defense of Marriage Act. They are not eligible for health care and other benefits routinely provided for dependents of military members. This injustice is a new and important front in the struggle for full human rights, one that has a unique religious twist that bears watching.

In late September, I attended a moving celebration hosted by the Military Partners and Families Coalition called "Beyond 61." It was a celebration of the new lease on life that these folks experienced after the 60-day waiting period following the repeal of DADT. It took place at Arlington Cemetery, fittingly at the Women in Military Service Memorial, since women have a long history of unequal treatment in the military, as well.

Unaccustomed as I am to military anything (I continue to serve my country in the peace movement), I was impressed by the diversity among the participants and their singular commitment to justice. I was alarmed by the fact that, after decades of struggle, today's young people are still subject to indignities due to their sexuality even when they enlist for military service. Given the current economic situation, their options for education and other kinds of work are limited. This only makes discrimination against the queer ones nastier.

The Military Partners and Families Coalition was "founded in 2011 by a group of partners of active duty U.S. Armed Forces service members stationed in the U.S. and overseas." MPFC "provides support, resources, education and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender military partners and their families." The Coalition includes OutServe, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, PFLAG, and the Unitarian Universal Association, among other members. The group formed because so many people affected by the fallout of Don't Ask, Don't Tell would not have their problems solved by the lifting of the ban.

A few stories of people I encountered tell the tale. Two women have a baby. The adopting mother does not dare to file the paperwork for fear of outing her partner, who serves in the military. The baby is without full legal protection. Two other women marry in Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal. But they decide not to make a big deal of it for fear that the one who is on active duty will get an unwanted discharge from the military. When asked if he has a partner, one young man says that he has been so afraid of being caught that he has not dated anyone long enough to form a stable union. I secretly worry about STDs. A slightly older gay couple tells of their fear of being found out when the active-duty member of the couple returns from a war zone. Even after months apart they skip the joyous homecoming event so as to avoid suspicion. These agonies add up to injustice no matter how you spell it.

Now that the Pentagon has gotten with the program, and DADT is history, there is still a long way to go to level the playing field. As military activists warn, an open service does not mean an equal service. The Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 keeps marriage between one man and one woman, with all the resultant discrimination against married, same-sex couples. Heterosexually married partners of military members get health benefits, access to housing, shopping privileges in the commissaries, to mention just a few. But same-sex partners might as well not exist.

Religion is cited as the major reason given for opposition to same-sex love. Oh, sure, the military worries about "unit cohesion" and undermining morale by allowing the faggots and dykes in, but at base, the arguments that form such mistaken notions are religious. God did not want two men or two women to love one another, so who is Uncle Sam to say they can? God did not intend for same-sex couples to make love, so why should the military provide a roof over their heads? So it must be on religious grounds that some of the cultural shifts in the military take place lest the legal changes outstrip the capacity of the various branches to embrace all their members equally. I was heartened to know that the Commandant of the Marine Corps thought it fine for a Marine to bring his male date to the Marine Ball. But what about providing the man with health benefits? Justice, not charity, equality, not tolerance, is the goal here, sir.

This sounds like a job for the military chaplains. Evangelical groups have packed the chaplaincy programs. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is producing upwards of 20 percent of future chaplains. Proselytizing has been a problem in the Air Force. Roman Catholics, whose official church is far from gay-friendly, make up a large percentage of the chaplains. So it may seem odd to look to chaplains for support. Enter the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy as a key player in strategies for reform. This group is made up of former and current military chaplains who provided assistance in DADT days, albeit under the radar.

FMC filed a brief with religious progressives like the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Churches, the UUA, and others arguing that DADT was "imposing anti-gay dogma offensive to many religious organizations." In a July 29 letter to The New York Times, the Rev. Paul W. Dodd wrote: "What the elimination of that law's shameful bigotry will do is 'permit' chaplains to perform same-sex marriages, and many military chaplains are eager to do just that." That came as a surprise to some who, remarkably, had argued that lifting the ban would disenfranchise those who preach against same-sex love. By preventing a UCC chaplain, for example, from ministering to her or his charges who are queer by allowing them to marry as the denomination and certain states do, the discrimination goes in the other direction.

Chaplain Paul W. Dodd, a 31-year Army veteran, is a founder and co-chair of the Forum. He was a Southern Baptist, now an American Baptist, who realized early on that the Chiefs of Chaplains in the various branches were key people in the struggle to overturn DADT. Their job is to guarantee the "free exercise of religion for all of our troops." So the Forum sent three chaplains who were full colonels to discuss the matter with the Pentagon Working Group. Apparently they were persuasive because, despite the apoplectic response of the religious right, they prevailed.

Now Paul Dodd and his colleagues face the heavy lifting necessary to make an open service equal for all. Could it be that federal support for same-sex marriage will get a running start in the military? Progressive chaplains are in the vanguard of those seeking equal rights for all. Stranger things have happened.

The strategic problem is that mainline and usually more liberal denominations have not encouraged their minsters to become chaplains. The number of Jewish, Muslim, Quaker, and others in the chaplaincy remains small while the Baptists and Catholics, many but not all of whom are shaky at best on queer issues, continue to minster in large numbers. This is no shock, since many progressive religious people have our scruples about the military on a good day. Maybe we need to rethink the situation.

The pastoral needs of people serving in the military and their loved ones are not subject to theo-politics. They are the responsibility of chaplains of whatever religious tradition to fulfill. This is the proud history of the military chaplaincy that has provided pastoral care and counsel for generations. There is every reason to think that, with the prodding of a retired chaplain like Paul Dodd and his colleagues, a new and more inclusive chapter will be written.

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