Military Chaplains Mull End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The military's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy,” will be no more as of Sept. 20, when homosexual men and women will be allowed to serve openly in all branches of the U.S. armed forces.

But a number of military chaplains fear an unofficial version of the policy will take its place, one that muzzles and marginalizes chaplains who hold strict biblical beliefs about homosexuality.

"We've already seen that a chaplain had an assignment pulled because he was critical of the repeal of DADT," says retired Col. Ron Crews, a former U.S. Army chaplain.

Crews, along with several other chaplain endorsers (denominations that sponsor military chaplains) are meeting with attorneys this week in Scottsdale, Ariz., to form a coalition that will provide legal and other support for chaplains and soldiers who might be disciplined over conflicts concerning their views on homosexuality. Crews is the executive director of the newly formed Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

"We need to cover our chaplains and all military personnel who hold traditional orthodox views on homosexuality, that their constitutional rights will not be infringed upon in this new environment," said Crews.

The government is assuring chaplains they have nothing to fear. A Department of Defense statement says, "Chaplains will continue to have freedom to practice their religion according to the tenets of their faith. Chaplains are not required to take actions that are inconsistent with their religious counseling ... or modifying forms of prayer or worship."

But Crews believes otherwise saying, "That line from the DOD is not the truth. They say there are no issues, but the issues are there."

One example, Crews says, is the military's “Strong Bonds” program, where chaplains council couples, often during retreats, on how to strengthen their marriages and family structures under the pressure of serving their country. Crews says the Department of Defense has had no instructions or guidelines on how to deal with same-sex couples.

If a chaplain holds Biblical orthodox views that see homosexuality as a sin, will he or she be reprimanded or disciplined or reassigned? Crews wonders, "Will they have to cut out chunks of the Bible that they can speak to soldiers about?"

But Chaplain Carleton Birch, spokesperson for the Army Chief of Chaplains, says the military as of right now doesn't recognize same sex marriages, even though six states have legalized it.

"We're working under the assumption that DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) is the law of the land and we haven't been working in anticipation of anything else right now," said Birch.

Crews says that's precisely the point. All the training that chaplains have been receiving for months anticipating the end of DADT was conditioned on DOMA being in place. But the White House announced back in the spring that the Defense of Marriage Act, which says marriage is only between a man and a woman, was not legally defensible. Several members of Congress last week also held hearings on the "Respect for Marriage Act," introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstin (D-Calif) in March, which aims to repeal DOMA.

Birch and others agree all bets are off if DOMA is repealed. "I don't think we know the implications yet."

Even though chaplains are free to exercise their religious beliefs in the pulpit, there are no guidelines for the trenches. And there are also no guidelines for soldiers who may be uncomfortable sharing close living and sleeping quarters with a gay or lesbian soldier. Crews asks "If a private first class is a assigned a homosexual bunk mate, will he be able to share his personal story about what his view on what sin is?"

Without guidelines or uniform rules, commanders will become judge and jury. That is why Crews and the conservative legal advocacy group The Alliance Defense Fund" are making this preemptive move.

Not all chaplains agree with Crews' group.

Retired Lt. Col. Theodore A. Henderson, a former Air Force chaplain, doesn't see the repeal of DADT as a major concern for military chaplains. Henderson, who retired in 2002 after 24 years of service, said he believes homosexuality is a sin. But doesn't believe the government will restrict any chaplain’s beliefs.

"I don't see it as a big issue," says Henderson.

Even under DADT he said, there were gay and lesbian couples who came to him for counseling. There was even a colonel who approached him looking for advice about his male lover, who was an airman.

"I told them I don't do that, and referred them to someone who could help them."

But Henderson does admit he's not sure about how the repeal of DADT will affect the entire military. "The military," he says is based on absolute trust. Soldiers die for their friends, they're fellow soldiers."

Will the structure of the camaraderie change because of polarizing views on homosexuality? "In that way it could possibly have and affect," says Henderson. But what that affect is, is not certain.

Fearing the worst, retired army chaplain Colonel Thomas E. Troxell said in the alliance's produced video that with the repeal of DADT it's clear the clergy who don't support the policy will be marginalized. And if that's the case he says "Why should I defend the religious liberties you're taking away from me?”

But according to Birch: "The military has been a changing culture that reflects the country. As the country becomes more diverse so has our chaplain corp. We've adjusted along with it, and will continue to do so."