Chaplain questions older than DADT

Allow me to start with some personal confessions before I take a look at the following news feature about the debates about Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the state of chaplains in the U.S. military. First of all, for the past week or so I have not been wading in the mainstream media as much as usual -- due to the rapid decline and death of my mother in Texas. It may take me a few days to get back up to speed.

Second, the author of the following report -- Eric Marrapodi -- is someone I have known for a year or so, because I cooperated in some of the early blogging discussions that led to the creation of the CNN Belief Blog. I did not, however, have any conversations with him about this story.

Third, this post is built on my long-term interests in the church-state debates that have raged around the wider issue of chaplains (approved by religious organizations and answering to them) working for the state and the military in the first place. This is an astonishingly complex subject and has been for a long time. Controversies about the behavior and rights of chaplains are not new.

Finally, I am well aware that there are people who insist that there is no conflict between religious liberty and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and that, as a result, they believe that the MSM does not need to cover the views of those who believe a conflict exists. However, there are two sides of the debate and, once again, the goal of the mainstream press is to accurately report the views on both sides. There are major religious institutions, including leaders in America's two largest religious flocks, who are worried about potential -- stress, potential -- results of repeal. Click here for my Scripps Howard News Service column about all of that.

This brings us to Marrapodi's report. It focuses on the fact that the status of military chaplains was addressed in the Pentagon report on DADT and the fact that, once again, people are arguing about the results. Here's the opening of the story:

The Pentagon's long-awaited study on its policy against gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military found that repeal of the controversial policy would face resistance from some service members on religious grounds, but that repeal would not require anyone to change their personal views or religious beliefs.

"Some feared repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality," the report says. "The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed."

Once again, the story says that, in the view of the authors of the pro-repeal report, soldiers will not have to change their religious beliefs. However, what about expressions of those beliefs? No limits? That's where the debates continue behind the scenes.

The main thing that I want to note in this report is a block of material near the end that gets right to the heart of the matter. This section is must reading for journalists and others interested in understanding why this debate is -- in terms of public coverage -- just getting started. No matter what happens in the lame-duck Congress, reporters can expect hearings in the new House of Representatives on the potential -- again, potential -- effects of DADT repeal on religious liberty, both for soldiers (liberal and conservative) and chaplains (liberal and conservative).

Read the following very carefully:

A religious group or denomination that is recognized by the military must endorse a clergy member to serve as a chaplain. The report says they reached out to "approximately 200 ecclesiastical endorsing agencies that endorse military chaplains, to gauge the likelihood of continued endorsement in the event of repeal." If a religious group or denomination pulls its endorsement for a chaplain that individual can no longer serve in the U.S. military.

The report says they received written responses from 77 of the groups they contacted, but those 77 groups represented over 70 percent of the chaplains in the armed forces. They found that "most expressed opposition to a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, based primarily on theological objections to homosexuality. However, none stated that it would withdraw its endorsements for military chaplains if the law were repealed."

It would be good to know (a) which religious groups were contacted and which ones were not and (b) which groups were contacted and elected not to respond.

Also, it's crucial that few if any religious leaders have, in the past year or two, suggested that mere repeal would lead to an exodus by chaplains. That isn't the issue. Thus, read on:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, "A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains' free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement," the report said.

In other words, the issue is what happens when traditional religious beliefs on sexuality are expressed in public or in one-on-one ministry.

Truth is, this is where the DADT conflict assumes the form of previous debates about the rights of soldiers to sympathetic chaplains and the rights of chaplains to be true to their ordination vows, in terms of the rites they perform and the doctrines that they publicly advocate or reject.

Thus, read on and prepare to come back to this point and read the following paragraph again:

"Existing regulations state that chaplains 'will not be required to perform a religious role ... in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.' At the same time, regulations state that 'Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.' "

You can see the shape of the debates.

Chaplains are not required to do things that violate their ordination vows. However, some have insisted that their careers are negatively affected if they constantly decline, for example, to pray in public events that would (to avoid offending soldiers of other faiths) require them to drop references to the Christian Trinity or to Jesus Christ.

Chaplains are required to care for all soldiers. But what about the doctrinal content of this care?

Does this mean caring for soldiers in ways that please all of the soldiers? What if the chaplain declines to provide certain rites or reassurances that are requested by a serviceperson? What if a traditional Catholic priest hears the confession of a Catholic soldier -- gay or straight -- who is in a sexual relationship that violates the Church's teachings and tells this believer that he or she must repent? Does the soldier have the right to protest, saying that the chaplain has declined to show proper care and respect? Has the chaplain violated the soldier's rights? Will this conflict help the priest when it is time for a promotion?

Now, go back to that passage on the rights and responsibilities of chaplains. Read it again.

Stay tuned. This is not a new story and it isn't just about sexuality. It's about doctrine and the rights of soldiers, the rights of chaplains and what happens when the two clash.

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