The Washington Post

Activists call on Congress to protect military chaplains

Conservative legal activists and Christian leaders said Thursday that they will sue on behalf of military chaplains if the Senate does not pass a Republican version of the annual Pentagon policy bill that includes language barring Defense Department employees from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The annual defense authorization bill, which sets military policy for the following year, passed the House on Thursday with bipartisan support. Among hundreds of spending and policy provisions, the language backed by activists 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 in April to Navy chaplains that said they would be permitted to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies at military chapels in states that recognize gay marriage once the 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 the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said “chaplains and service members are secure and protected,” adding that any effort to further protect chaplains is “another desperate end run” by social conservatives. The SLDN supports ending the ban on gays in the military and represents troops discharged for violating the “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 all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to ensure that federal law — instead of the Pentagon personnel policy — represents the group’s position.

“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 Thursday at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

Bishop John Neal, a retired U.S. Army colonel who leads the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, warned that allowing military participation in gay weddings 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 noncommissioned 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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