Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' could strengthen religious freedom in the military

June 3, 2010

Support for the repeal of the U.S. Military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is gaining momentum. Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing the 17-year old law, followed closely by a vote of approval by the Senate Armed Service Committee just days later. It seems likely to me that within the next several months we will see the beginning of a fully integrated military in the United States. To this I say, "Hooray! And Amen!"

As the repeal gains momentum there have been a number of predictable responses from various groups both for and against the policy, but one particular outcry has surprised me, namely that of some military chaplains who say that a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would somehow infringe upon their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

In a letter to President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, 40 retired chaplains claimed to speak for "many [if not most]" chaplains, citing their belief that the "normalization" of "homosexual behavior in the armed forces" will pose a difficult moral choice. And I agree.

It seems to me that we have been approaching this particular moral choice for some time, as chaplains from traditionally conservative and evangelical denominations have raised outcry after outcry over issues such as praying in Jesus' name, promotions of their fellow chaplains to higher ranks, and the right to evangelize. In each instance, these chaplains have sounded the same battle cry, pointing to the First Amendment, which they read as protecting of their right to be who they are. Indeed it does.

But what these chaplains fail to recognize is that the First Amendment, with respect to religious freedom, has two clauses: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." As a former Navy chaplain I remember well the admonitions of our instructors at Chaplain School: As chaplains it was to be our sworn duty to provide religious ministry to those of our own faith, to facilitate for the religious needs of others, to care for all in our charge, and to advise our commanding officers, ensuring the free exercise of religion. We were to walk a fine line between any hint of establishment and the assurance of free exercise. In providing for our own, we were sworn not to proselytize, and we were counseled and trained extensively on the pluralistic foundations of our work.

Even in Chaplain School there were debates between chaplain candidates and instructors over what some candidates thought were unfair policies. Surely they must be allowed to be who they were! And yes, within limits, they were assured that they could preach, teach, and worship according to their faith tradition, but when it came to the religious needs of others they were to defer -- a necessary accommodation that ensured the continued presence of chaplains for the free exercise of religion at the risk of violating the establishment clause. A fine line indeed, and a nuance that many could not grasp.

So yes, as our government moves forward with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the integration of our military, as we move closer toward that "more perfect union" where all people can enter into military service regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious preference, military chaplains are faced with a difficult moral choice: either support and defend the Constitution of the United States (all of it), or risk the extinction of the chaplaincy.

For too long we have allowed evangelical chaplains to insist on "free exercise" at the expense of the spiritual, religious, moral, and personal well-being of our men and women in uniform. For too long we have let them exercise their conscience while sublimating our own religious beliefs. For too long we have entertained their half-reading of the Constitution while risking the continued presence of chaplains who understand their duty and who are willing to hold their beliefs strongly while allowing others to do the same. And if we continue to allow them to run roughshod over us, our faith, and our well-founded Constitutional values, I believe that the military would be better off without all of them, and that is a sad thing, indeed.

I, for one, see the intrinsic value of a military chaplaincy that can provide, facilitate, and advise. In these sad days of conflict the men and women of our armed forces need the unique voice of hope that chaplains can provide, and, perhaps more so, our military leaders need the moral voice and ethical advice that is their chaplain.

There is, indeed, a moral choice at hand, and I fear that if you don't make the right choice it will be made for all of us.