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Ambiguity causes concern for freedoms of military chaplains after repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

The repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy takes effect this month. Leaving to one side the debate about the policy itself, there are significant concerns for the U.S. military's chaplaincy corps in the post-repeal era unless specific, robust protections for the chaplains' religious liberty and free speech rights are explicitly adopted.

What are the potential problems for military chaplains after DADT's repeal?

Suppose a soldier, sailor or Marine tells a chaplain that he is gay, and the chaplain, due to his religious belief, responds that homosexual behavior is a sin. Would that chaplain be subject to a sexual orientation discrimination charge, which could end his career? Must chaplains allow openly gay servicemen in lay leadership positions? Are chaplains free to preach against homosexual behavior or criticize the repeal of DADT? Will chaplains be banned from teaching classes on ethics and leadership on military bases and schools if they have moral objections to homosexual behavior? In military programs where couples receive counseling on how to strengthen their marriage, can chaplains decline to counsel same-sex couples if they are morally opposed to same-sex marriage?

A group of veteran chaplains of various denominations wrote Congress last month to advocate protections for chaplains. They fear that, after repeal, chaplains from faiths morally opposed to homosexual behavior will be "marginalized and even punished" for being true to their faith. They cite the Pentagon's admission that the military's existing religious liberty protections are not clear. It is uncertain, in the absence of specific guidelines, how local military commanders will deal with this new genre of sexual orientation complaints. Without guidelines, decisions will be inconsistent and perhaps arbitrary.

The military's official position is that the DADT repeal will leave chaplains' activities essentially unchanged.

"Chaplains will continue to have freedom to practice their religion according to the tenets of their faith. Chaplains are not required to take actions that are inconsistent with their religious counseling ... or modifying forms of prayer or worship." While that sounds reassuring, we're already hearing other voices saying that if chaplains can't reconcile themselves with the new policy, they should quit — get in line or get out. Chaplains may well reach the same conclusion unless specific protections are adopted that give real substance to these official assurances.

Chaplains may have a lot to reconcile soon. While the Department of Defense (DOD) claims nothing much will change, the Department of Justice recently has both ceased to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and is opposing it as unconstitutional. DOMA defines marriage as between one man and one woman. If courts agree that DOMA is unconstitutional, then the flood gates would open for benefits, causing a wave of additional religious liberty and free speech issues to inundate military chaplains.

We've already had a glimpse of such change. This spring, the Navy Chaplaincy announced that same-sex marriages could be held on military bases and in military chapels in states where same-sex marriage is legal. (After receiving pressure from Congress, it later withdrew that policy pending further review.)

The Obama Administration should ensure that when the military opens its doors to those who are openly gay, it does not usher out the chaplains' religious liberty and free speech rights. Congress and DOD should protect — subject to the military's unique context — a chaplain's right to freely preach, counsel, and speak and not be subject to adverse employment actions because of his moral objection to homosexual conduct. By doing so, the military will also ensure that our nation's servicemen and women have access to a representative array of our nation's faith communities during their service. Failure to enact such protections may force out of the chaplaincy corps those with sincere religious beliefs on the subject.

Hannah C. Smith is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and Senior Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C.-based public interest law firm that defends religious liberty for people of all faiths.