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Tom Carpenter Headshot

Military Chaplains Cry Wolf

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The decision by the United States Supreme Court declaring the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional has certain conservative Christian, Jewish and Muslim military chaplains crying wolf. These chaplains falsely claim that if they follow the law by recognizing the dignity of same gender legally married couples, by treating them as other married couples; they will be at odds with their personal religious beliefs and those of the faith groups they represent and which endorse them as military chaplains. They are wrong.

Contrary to the allegations being made by some conservative groups and commentators, no military chaplain has been, or ever will be, required to perform a same gender wedding if to do so would be contrary to their faith tradition or religious beliefs. It is established that if a chaplain believes that acting on ones sexual orientation is sin they may preach this to those who share these same beliefs. But this is not enough for conservative chaplains. They want to be able to publicly declare and privately counsel all service members that same gender sexual relations are a sin. They claim that to prohibit them from doing so would be a violation of their religious liberty.

This demand to preach and counsel in a narrow manner is against the public policy of the United States and is not new; rather it illuminates the backward mindset from which the cry of wolf springs. Some of these chaplains claim the right to be able to preach and counsel that women should not be allowed to serve in combat. Others demand the right to be able to pray in "Jesus' name" while conducting ceremonies that are mandatory and supposedly non-denominational. They all claim these rights under the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

But these conservative chaplains are not satisfied just to claim constitutional protection for their religious beliefs. They and their like-minded civilian allies, such as the Family Research Council, are demanding specific special interest legislative protection. With the help of conservative Republican members of Congress, they were successful in obtaining a so-called "conscience protection provision" in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). But they now claim it did not go far enough or give them enough protection. In this year's NDAA they are demanding a provision allowing them to make any statement or take any action so long as it does not actually harm unit cohesion, as opposed to the standard set in the earlier provision, of threatening to harm or undermine unit cohesion.

These conservative chaplains and their respective faith groups may face a theological and practical dilemma, much as Quakers who object to all wars and militarism. The first Quaker chaplain to have served in the U.S. Army, Chaplain L. Randall Heckert, once said "though he is considered a 'non-combatant,' he would accompany his field artillery unit into battle."

It remains to be seen whether today's generation of ever more conservative chaplains will demonstrate such magnanimity, or simply refuse to participate in couple retreats, family life seminars, morale support activities, or any chapel event that includes same-gender couples. Indeed, they may continue to cry wolf, and continue to seek congressional protection for the license to discriminate at taxpayers' expense.