Military chaplaincy faces choice of mission or anti-gay toleration

Update 3/26: SDA Guidance, Update 10/31: Texas Baptist Guidance and August DoD Guidance, Update 10/2: Disciples of Christ guidance, Update 9/19: Catholic Guidance, see below for details.
militarygaymarriageThe military chaplaincy faces a clear threat as more chaplain endorsers come out with policies denouncing their duties in favor of anti-gay theology. There is also redemption in the form of endorsing agencies embracing their military duties to all service members, gay or straight. The real concern is that official military policy published so far by the Army and Air Force seems to affirm the right to discriminate. If chaplains are allowed to discriminate against gays and lesbians and even against those who choose not to discriminate, then we may be seeing the end of the military chaplaincy.

The Army, Army Reserve, and Air Force statements on the topic so far, specifically for the relationship counseling programs that the chaplaincy now controls. Those policies as well as other denominational statements are consolidated below. One can see anticipate that the creeping ‘separate but equal’ policies the chaplains seem to be instituting will discredit the chaplaincy and call senior non-chaplain leaders to remove from the chaplaincy important morale and relationship-building programs.

Tom Carpenter, head of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, wrote to the Huffington Post asking how chaplains can continue with restrictive anti-gay policies.  In an email to the Forum authorized to be quoted by MAAF here, he had the following to say:

As we suspected, the Endorsers will fall into three camps. The first will line up with the policy set forth by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. There will be a second group that will be consistent with their deeply held religious beliefs that LGBT service members are sinners but will recognize the obligation of chaplains to perform or provide for ALL, including LGBT service members and their families. Then there will be a third group made up of affirming denominations who welcome all as children of God worthy of love, respect and compassion.

The Chiefs of Chaplains must stand firm in favor of military policy and the military personnel they have sworn to support. These are personnel like Matt Phelps, recently married to his partner, and very concerned that the military will affirm discrimination rather than his own service. The Chiefs must ensure that endorsing agencies with anti-gay theology either recuse themselves from chaplain service or permit their military chaplains to work with and for homosexuals and same-gender couples. If the Chiefs will not issue that guidance, then the non-chaplain leaders must step in to make the decision for them. A likely outcome is that the Department of Defense will discount the value of a chaplaincy who religious conscience undermines its military duties. That might lead to a greatly restricted role of the chaplaincy to match their desire to work exclusively within their own theology.

It is fair to say that the military changed but the chaplains did not. A few years ago, gays could not serve openly (DADT) and the federal government did not recognize same-gender couples or marriage (DOMA). What was policy a few years ago is now discrimination. That is a positive change we should all embrace, but some will not do so because their religious beliefs call for discrimination against gays. Chaplains are required to perform necessary religious services or provide referral to those who can provide those services. The free exercise of religion and so-called “conscience protection” does not extend to being paid to not do your job, as in the case of chaplains who refuse to provide for the needs of gays and lesbians.

Just to be clear, no one is suggesting a chaplain should have to perform gay weddings or give pro-gay sermons. In faith-based sermons and counseling, there should be no restriction on promoting opposite-gender relationships and attraction if that is the theology the service member expects. But most of what a chaplain does is outside the faith-based context such as flagship marriage counseling programs like MarriageCare and Strong Bonds (see below). And similarly, it would be reasonable and fair (if distasteful to many) to allow a chaplain to opt out of a retreat or a special sessions specifically tailored to gay couples. That would be a reasonable accommodation if nothing else simply to recognize they wouldn’t do a very good job. But these policies disavow any contact with any pro-gay person even if they are straight or any potentially gay-friendly event even if there are no explicit interactions.

The chaplain accessions regulations provide for a number of alternatives for those chaplains who find themselves in conflict with the new, affirming military. The first option is to find another endorser that does not have anti-gay restrictions. In this way, a chaplain can avoid endorser restrictions and be a good chaplain by picking a new endorser. There are multiple Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Baptist, and even Catholic endorsers. For those who agree with the restrictions, taking a non-chaplain role is another option. That would still require them to work with gays and lesbians theoretically, though their new role would not involve the frequent counseling, marriage retreats, and other chaplain-related activities and so presumably there would be less pressure. But if even that limited interaction is too much, then they should be afforded an honorable discharge for lack of endorsement.

Thus far, a number of letters of guidance have been sent out. At the top are a number of military letters and below that are the denominational letters putting pressure on military policy and the fabric of the chaplaincy. They are consolidated below and this will be updated as new information comes available. (watch for updates)

  • Army Chaplain Strong Bonds – Army Chaplain Strong Bonds 5 Sep – Strong Bonds is the flagship program of the chaplaincy and is considered a faith-based program though it is a family counseling program open to all without a non-chaplain equivalent. New policy will require inclusion of same-gender couples where only straight couples were previously accommodated. The policy recognizes same-gender couples must be included and recognizes the need to develop new curricula, but puts no requirement on chaplains to perform those duties and provides an exemption for any chaplain to opt out whenever they wish not to deal with same-gender persons.
  • Army Reserve – USARC Telecon Aug 31st – Accepts for serious consideration questions like “Will attendees be notified that a same-sex couple will be attending the event?” with the response, “we need to be sensitive to the needs of all attendees.” There are points of encouragement in the document, but the assumptions follow the expectation that “separate but equal” is an acceptable way to accommodate anti-gay chaplains and attendees. The Air Force guidance below reads as a likely application of the ideas in this teleconference.
  • Air Force – USAF Guidance Sep 3rd – This guidance entirely protects the right to discriminate, prohibiting anything that might violate an endorsement (without regard to the endorser’s responsibility to provide chaplains willing to serve in a pluralistic military community). There are requirements to advertise any gay-affirming leader or attendee of a “MarriageCare” relationship counseling event. This is intended to maintain a separate-but-equal protection of anti-gay couples from couples that may make them uncomfortable. The control is given to the chaplain. The deference is given to the chaplain. If the chaplain wishes to discriminate, then airmen must be given a civilian alternative. The default should be that any anti-gay persons who disagree with military openness to gays and lesbians should be afforded alternatives to be led by straight-only chaplains or civilian clergy, if such are available to provide private alternatives. The Air Force should develop, fund, and staff events that support Air Force policy. Chaplains themselves should be held to the same standard as any other airman, which in this case is religious accommodation that does not inhibit the military mission.
  • Southern Baptist Convention – North American Mission Board – SBC Guidance Aug 31st – Restricts chaplains from any interaction with pro-gay persons or participation in pro-gay events. see full review here.
  • Grace Churches International – GCI Guidance Sep 5th – Follows, almost verbatim, the extreme anti-gay stance of the SBC-NAMB. However, GCI did authorize its chaplains to refer same-gender couples to chaplains who would perform the wedding, which is something that didn’t seem to be included in the SBC guidance.
  • Seventh-day Adventist – SDA Guidance May 14th, 2010 – Older guidance but still seems to apply in that it states the church “recognizes the complexity of this issue (open service for gays and lesbians) and will continue to minister to all people regardless of their sexual orientation.” Though vague, this seems to be the example of a denomination that does not accept homosexuality but does accept its military duties.
  • Coalition of Spirit-Filled Churches – CSC Application – This provides a requirement for all chaplains to sign a commitment to plurality in very clear terms (Statement of Understanding and Commitment #3). “I understand that an attitude of superiority or adversarial acts and non-cooperation towards pastoral caregivers and adherents of other faiths, practices, race, gender, or sexual orientation will not be tolerated”.
  • Unitarian Universalist Association – UUA Guidance Sep 5th – Fully-affirming denomination with fully-affirming guidance for chaplains.
  • United Church of Christ – UCC Guidance Sep 10th – Another full-affirming denomination which reiterates its own ordination of LGBT persons and encouraging of chaplains to consider the new inclusiveness in the military a new opportunity to reach military personnel.
  • Update 9/19: Catholic Church guidance, see expanded review below.
  • Update 10/2: Christian Church – Disciples of Christ – DOC Guidance 9/27. The guidance is both restrictive and permissive, saying “no matter how you do in your ministry, I will defend and support you.” That is an easy answer but abdicates the supervisory responsibility an endorsing agent must uphold in return for the privilege of endorsing military chaplains.The letter affirms chaplain freedoms to “minister with the love of Jesus Christ and the guidance of your own personal conscience and heart… discern God’s will… the decision is yours.” But there are is a clear statement about those who choose to be anti-gay: “you must perform (directly) or provide (through referrals) ministry… if you do not or cannot, then you are not in compliance with military regulations and are of little value to those who serve our nation.” But again, it’s unclear what the consequences really are.
  • Update 10/31: Texas Baptists – TB guidelines 20130923. Texas Baptists just reaffirmed their position against gay marriage. They mentioned no specific circumstances or consequences for compliance or non-compliance.
  • Update 10/31: Secretary of Defense Guidance – Hagel Guidance 20130813. Just for good measure, this is the guidance from Secretary Hagel that is unequivocal in setting all marriage equal, regardless of the gender of the two participants.
  • Update 3/26: Seventh Day Adventists – SDA Guidance 20140123. SDA prohibits its chaplains from performing gay marriage or otherwise directly approving of homosexuality. However, they permit and encourage chaplains to work with and alongside all persons, even those who may be themselves gay.
  • Though it hardly needs to be stated the prospective endorser the Humanist Society is entirely welcoming and affirming of all loving relationships, gay or straight. This is evidenced in part by their short offering of free marriage ceremonies to same-gender military couples who were for so long without the opportunity to marry.

Policies should be forthcoming from Presbyterian Churches USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, Roman Catholics, and United Methodist Church. Each of these denominations has a flag officer in the Chief of Chaplains offices and may have a duty-based policy to work with all. Obviously the Navy, Medical Command, and Department of Veterans Affairs, not to mention the state National Guards should also weigh in. Add your comments and links to related policy statements as they are published.

Update 9/19: Catholic Guidance for chaplains and commanders. 

Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Catholic Military Archdiocese has issued guidance not just for chaplains but for commanders. Adding commanders is relevant as some anti-gay organizations and individuals have lamented that even signing paperwork is a violation of their faith. This guidance is important as Roman Catholics are a very large and influential presence in the military and in the US. Whereas the SBC policy seems to very clearly invalidate SBC endorsements, the Catholic guidelines may be workable in practice.

  • Starting with commanders, Broglio refers to the National Catholic Bioethics Center statement that “tolerable remote mediate material cooperation with evil”. The guidance continues to require Catholics to make their objections publicly known and to advocate for policy changes. Being honest about their objections while carrying out their duties is exactly the unhappy but honorable compromise this post-DOMA transition requires.
  • The Chaplain policy provides a lot of reasonable restrictions related to faith-based anti-gay activities. Chaplains may not perform a same-gender marriage, funeral ceremonies, or allow anyone in a same-gender relationship to work within the Catholic ministry (servers, lectors, etc). All of these provide for Catholic oversight over Catholic activities and are appropriate places for faith-based guidelines to take precedence.
  • Counseling can be complicated. The Catholic guidelines advise their priests to refer parties to a chaplain better able to assist. The SBC guidelines advised what can only be referred to as shaming. Chaplains should counsel according to their conscience but should refer to others when they know there is a fundamental disagreement. The guidelines rightfully advise Catholic chaplains to give Catholic (in this case anti-gay) counseling to those who request Catholic advice. This priest-to-Catholic faith-based counseling should not be subordinate to military regulations.
  • One arguably-excessive restriction references changes of command but effectively prohibits a chaplain for ever even acknowledging a same-gender spouse. This will hurt chaplains by removing them from many unit activities. This is good from a secular perspective as prayer as chaplains will be less inclined to impose prayer on military activities.
  • The most concerning restriction states that Catholic chaplains will not participate in any relationship/marriage event that is even “open to” couples of the same gender. An acceptable restriction would be to not provide direct instruction of same-gender activities. To fail to participate at all, in general sessions, Christian breakouts, or specifically Catholic focus groups hurts Catholics and puts undue burden on other chaplains willing to support all. While this restriction is excessive it probably does not by itself invalidate the Archdiocese endorsement authorization.
  • One demographics note that Archbishop Broglio made was that same-gender couples are less than 1% of the military. That may be the case, but that number is likely to increase dramatically with the new changes. And only one couple on an installation may cause Catholic chaplains to opt themselves out of many chaplain-led activities. Moreover, the Catholic guidelines for marriage retreats apply to any retreat “open to” same-gender couples whether or not such a couple actually attends.



6 Responses to Military chaplaincy faces choice of mission or anti-gay toleration

  1. I know it has been some time since this article was posted, but thought I’d throw out a few thoughts on the issue. The most basic disagreement over this issue has to do with the nature of discrimination. If homosexuality is treated in the same way as ethnicity, race, etc. (as many argue), then it could be the end of chaplaincy or at least a chaplaincy that actually serves the religious needs, desires, and beliefs of the majority of service members who make use of it. The difficulty here has to do with the competing “rights” of persons involved. The very reason a government-funded and run chaplaincy can exist without violating the First Amendment (contra claims by Mike Weinstein) is that Free Exercise is deemed so critical that it even can trump Establishment in certain circumstances. The question that will need to be asked is whether Free Exercise is really at stake here, and if there is a way to protect Free Exercise while also respecting the “rights” of homosexual service members (presumably these rights are tied to the pursuit of happiness, perhaps privacy, association, etc.; there are many ways one could argue for the right to marry and to be treated just as all others). The article, I think, is relatively balanced, given that it comes from a website with a particular viewpoint. The easiest solution is to continue as proposed: offer separate marriage retreats for gay and lesbian couples and use chaplains that have no problem with that lifestyle. This would allow the chaplains who disagree for religious reasons (and are prohibited by their endorsers) to still carry the lion’s share of the marriage retreats, and would allow couples who also have an ethical and/or religious objection to homosexuality to attend retreats with like-minded couples [like it or not, some will not want to attend a marriage enrichment retreat with homosexual couples; we can either tell them, “too bad, get over it!” or we can provide for their needs…tough call]. It would also provide an environment where the gay/lesbian couples will be free to express themselves without fear of being judged. Still, “separate but equal” has nasty connotations, and I suspect the gay and lesbian community (or at least the vocal members) will not accept it. The end result, I fear, will be that the Army G1 will end up taking the programs over and running them with sociologists or the like. There is nothing particularly wrong with mental health professionals, but they tend to be less dynamic in front of a crowd that the typical chaplain (I am speaking in generalities, I know). The point is that I think this would be a shame, but it is probably the best way to preserve both the rights of religious conservatives (who make up a significant portion of the military service members) and of gay/lesbian service members. Chaplains will continue to help all personnel, by either “performing or providing” the necessary religious support. Some will do it well, and others will not. That is the nature of humanity and of service. Just for full disclosure, I am a military chaplain from a conservative religious denomination/endorser.

    • The simplest solution is for the military to operate without anti-gay discrimination and if there is a need, even a great need for certain denominations to offer special faith-based same-sex only retreats, then that’s a special accommodation they can organize. But the default is for everyone to be included and anti-gay chaplains and couples should be the ones opting out. Protecting people from gays, atheists, women in leadership, muslims in niqab, Wiccans, open relationships or any of the many and varied religious objections that may arise is not the easiest solution. If someone wishes to opt out, then they can, but it shouldn’t be the victims who have to opt out.

  2. This article is blatantly slanted against military Chaplains who’s stance hasn’t changed amid the military’s turmoil. It’s not a “good” Chaplain vs bad Chaplain. It doesn’t make one a bad chaplain to continue to hold morality high in standard while the world calls wrong, right. They should be applauded. They’re the only ones left standing in the gap against immorality. Secondly, helping gay Soldiers is not an issue. Counseling a gay Soldier is not an issue. The issue is teaching & training gay couples in relationship skills such as marriage! Those were designed for opposite sex, male and female couples. The follow up issue is sharing a religious service or course of instruction with another Chaplain or individual that is gay, or supporting the gay lifestyle. That is opposed to faith, tradition & doctrine of the majority of Protestant Chaplains. Helping through counseling is not the problem. Service which identifies the Chaplain as endorsing sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism….. That is the issue.

    • This article specifically recognizes that anti-gay chaplains didn’t change. Obviously your opinion hasn’t either. Anti-gay chaplains may not be able to serve in a military that treats homosexuality and heterosexuality equally. But it is for those denominations to decide. If an anti-gay denomination says the Army has to choose between soldiers and anti-gay chaplains, the military should choose its soldiers. That’s the difference between chaplaincy and traditional ministry – serving amongst many who believe differently.

  3. Pingback: Military Chaplaincy Faces Choice of Mission or Anti-Gay Toleration - Forum on the Military Chaplaincy

  4. When I served “way back when” in the Navy, being gay was criminal, though, for the most part, at that point they were just ushered out of the Navy. I am an atheist, by definition, though I have called myself agnostic for a long time. At that time, also, one could not be “agnostic”, but had to be atheist or “no preference.” That has changed. But, I must defend the chaplain corp, to some extent. The Navy chaplain that I had the privilege to know while serving was probably the most sincere and giving person I have ever known. He is a Methodist minister, I believe. His religious mission was to help gays in the military with their problems of being gay (he didn’t try to “heal” them) in an environment that was openly hostile to them. He helped a lot of people, both gay and not. As a result, the NIS persecuted him and tried to get him to resign. In open courts martial the NIS lies and half truths came out and he was vindicated. The Navy chaplain corp, once they were informed, directly supported him. Helping gays was not a problem for them. This new issue, from what I gather from this article, is essentially Baptist bigotry and does not affect all chaplains. This is my hope.

Leave a Reply to Jeff Hillendahl Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.