Conservatives want congressional action for chaplains

Conservative legal activists and Christian leaders said Thursday that they would sue to protect the religious freedoms of military chaplains if the Senate doesn’t include language in the annual Pentagon policy bill that bars Defense Department employees from participating in same-sex-marriage ceremonies.

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The annual Defense Authorization Act, which sets military policy for the following year, passed the House on Thursday with bipartisan support. Among its hundreds of spending and policy provisions, it would bar service members and civilian Defense Department workers from participating in same-sex-marriage ceremonies on military property.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) introduced the provision this month in response to guidance issued to Navy chaplains that they could perform same-sex marriage ceremonies at military chapels in states that recognize gay marriage, once the federal ban on gays in the military officially ends. The Navy later withdrew the guidance pending further legal review by Pentagon lawyers.

The Navy’s proposed policy would make it difficult for military chaplains to fulfill their dual obligations as religious leaders and service members, according to the leaders of 21 Christian organizations who wrote this week to the top chaplains for the Air Force, Army and Navy. The groups select and endorse military chaplains to represent their denominations.

“We are genuinely concerned that this might be a sign of things to come,” the leaders wrote, requesting explicit conscience protections for chaplains.

But Pentagon policies regarding service members’ individual expression and the free exercise of religion already exist, Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said.

“There will be no changes,” Lainez said in an e-mail. “In today’s military, people of different moral and religious values work, live and fight together; this is possible because they treat each other with dignity and respect.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said, “Chaplains and service members are secure and protected,” adding that any effort to further protect chaplains would represent “another desperate end run” by social conservatives. SLDN supports ending the ban on gays in the military and represents troops discharged for violating the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays in uniform.

But Austin Nimocks, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, said his conservative legal organization would sue to ensure that federal law — instead of the Pentagon personnel policy — protects chaplains.

“If the Senate does not follow the House and protect chaplains and service members, we have no doubt that legal action will be required,” Nimocks said at a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Bishop John Neal, a retired U.S. Army colonel who leads the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, warned that a lack of protections could compel socially conservative chaplains and troops to leave the military.

“I think what you’re going to find is a lot of senior officers, senior non-commissioned officers, that would have stayed longer will get out,” he said.

“I don’t think we know yet how many generals may just decide, ‘I’m going to call it a day,’ ” Neal added.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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