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'Conscience Protections': Death of the Military Chaplaincy?

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Military leaders have long complained about the inequities created by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). They recognized that having two classes of service members was detrimental to unit morale, discipline and had an adverse impact on military readiness. Many celebrated the recent finding by the Supreme Court that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, not just because it was a matter of simple justice, but also because overturning this law will make their jobs as leaders much easier. Some conservative chaplains who serve an important function supporting these commanders do not agree. Why?

Specific faith groups endorse military chaplains. Without this endorsement, clergy cannot become military chaplains. If this endorsement is ever pulled, by their endorsing faith group, the chaplain can lose their job. Once candidates are endorsed and meet the physical and mental requirements of the military they receive commissions as officers. They attend training at the joint Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center at Ft. Jackson, S.C. where they are taught about what their duties are as a military chaplain. There are many differences between being a civilian clergy and having the awesome responsibilities of all who wear our country's uniform.

One of the major challenges facing many of the more conservative chaplains is the requirement they minister to people of all faith and even those who have no faith. This means that a Jewish airman can seek counseling from a Muslim chaplain or a lesbian Marine can ask for help from a chaplain whose faith tradition teaches that homosexuality is an abomination and a sin worthy of death.

Under the so called "Conscience Protections" amendment being proposed by religious conservatives to be added to this year's National Defense Authorization Act, the Muslim chaplain could tell the Jewish airman that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. The conservative Christian chaplain would be able to tell this lesbian Marine that she needs to repent of her sin or surely she will go to hell. In addition to these examples, the striking down of Section 3 of DOMA presents even more challenges. Under this proposed legislation, will these conservative chaplains be permitted to refuse to participate in any couples retreats, family life seminars, or other similar family support activities that include same-gender couples?

The answer is simple. It is the long-standing tradition and practice of military chaplains to accommodate all service members. It is also well established that no chaplain is required to carry out any ceremony or participate in any event that is contrary to his or her faith tradition. This policy is called "perform or provide." It means that in the case of the Jewish airman seeking the help of the Imam, if the Muslim chaplain felt uncomfortable he would be duty bound to find another chaplain who could meet the needs of the service member. If the conservative Christian chaplain could not counsel the lesbian Marine without feeling compelled to talk with her about what he believes is the sin of homosexuality and the need for repentance, he merely has to find a chaplain from a more affirming faith group.

These conservative chaplains and their supporters are demanding this legislation because they no longer want to fulfill their duty to "perform or provide." They want it both ways. To have the honor to wear their country' uniform as officers, be paid by the American taxpayer and be able to preach and counsel as they chose. To permit this would be contrary to the obligation they accepted when they became military chaplains and took the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States.

This proposed legislation is a challenge not only to the military leadership, but also the well being of service members. If it passes, it has a potential negative impact on unit morale, discipline and cohesion. What those who are demanding this legislation fail to recognize is that their continued attempts to allow a chaplain to avoid their duty to "perform or provide" threatens the very continued existence of the military chaplaincy.