Chaplain Agencies Seek Conscience Protections in Military Amid Pro-Gay Moves

Top agencies responsible for graduating chaplains into the three branches of the U.S military are petitioning for protections for chaplains who oppose homosexuality.

Twenty-one agencies including representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention, the Anglican Church in North America, and the National Association of Evangelicals sent a letter on Monday urging branch chief chaplains to protect the free speech and religion rights of serving chaplains. They want to ensure that chaplains and service members won't be punished if they preach on or discuss homosexuality as a sin.

In the letter, prepared with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, the agencies ask that the branch chaplains lobby with them and that Congressional allies establish protections similar to those offered to medical professionals, for members of the chaplain core.

"We strongly encourage the adoption of broad, clear, and strong protections for conscience," the letter states. "Service members should know that chaplains' ministry and their own rights of conscience remain protected everywhere military necessity has placed them."

Conscience protections for chaplains are necessary, the groups explain, so that they can do their jobs providing spiritual guidance.

"Chaplains have a tremendous moral responsibility to insure that when they preach, teach or counsel, they do so in accordance with their conscience and in harmony with the faith group by which they are endorsed," the letter states.

The Christian groups argue that the military's new climate, changed by the impending reversal of the military's ban on open homosexuality, threatens chaplains' ability to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to them.

"When guidance, however, is forthcoming from senior leadership that implies protected status for those who engage in homosexual behavior and normalizes same-sex unions in base chapels ... it creates an environment that is increasingly hostile to the many chaplains ... whose faith groups and personal consciences recognize homosexual behavior as immoral and unsafe," the letter details.

The agencies entreat, "We hope that you will join us in urging [the Department of Defense] and Congress to adopt such specific and intentional conscience protections."

The letter was the result of naval changes to training instructions permitting branch chaplains to wed same-sex couples on their respective bases. In states where it is lawful, chaplains would have been allowed to conduct gay marriage ceremonies on base. Although the duty was announced as a voluntary one, it ignited a firestorm of criticism.

The Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council blasted the training change, saying, "Call it what you will, but that's not a change to 'training' – that's a circumvention of U.S. law."

Although the Barack Obama administration has said it will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, its federal mandate that marriage be defined as a union between a man and a woman still governs all government agencies, including the military.

House Republicans, in agreement with conservatives, wrote letters to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus objecting to the Navy's initial decision and urging the branch to explain the change in relation to .

They also threatened to introduce at least two bills to delay the actual repeal of the “don't ask, don't tell” policies and reinforce the traditional definition of marriage in the military in response to the change.

Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley projected earlier this year that repeal training would be completed and the 1993 gay ban could be lifted by the end of the year.

Republicans also discussed introducing a bill to give chaplains conscience protections.

Days later, Chief Navy chaplain Rear Adm. Mark Tidd issued a one-sentence memo suspending the changes until further notice "pending additional legal and policy review and interdepartmental coordination."

There is no word when a bill for the military conscience protections will be discussed in a Congressional session.

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