Sixty-five retired military chaplains wrote to President Barack Obama earlier this year urging him to maintain the military’s ban on service by openly gay men and women. These chaplains alleged that allowing gay men and women to serve openly would compel them to violate their religious principles, such as forcing them to perform same-sex marriages. They claim that if they would not officiate at such marriages, the military would discipline, demote, and perhaps even dismiss them from military service. Repealing the ban, commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” will force them to either “obey God or to obey man.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. As a lawyer and retired assistant chief of chaplains with the rank of brigadier general, let me set the record straight.
A chaplain exists to serve the military in two capacities. First, chaplains serve as clergy to members of their own faith. A priest will minister to Catholics, a rabbi to Jews, and an imam to Muslims. Second, chaplains must serve the military as a whole by supporting the diverse population of men and women in the armed forces, by providing for the U.S. Constitution’s “free exercise rights” of every military member.
Our military has maintained the chaplains’ freedom to serve their congregations according to the principles of their faith for nearly two and a half centuries. There is no reason why this would change if gays and lesbians served openly in the military. Military chaplains are not required to perform services that violate their religious beliefs—a rabbi, for example, is not required to administer a Catholic’s last rite. So the claim that repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will compel chaplains to violate their religious faith is blatantly false.
Chaplains also serve the needs of a diverse population of service members in addition to their own faith group. They do so not by violating their own religious principles but by assuring that the service member is afforded his or her religious needs by clergy who share their beliefs. In fact, before becoming a chaplain, a chaplain applicant must explicitly agree that he or she is willing to function in a pluralistic free exercise environment to be considered for an appointment to the military.
Thus, chaplains must serve members of the military who hold different political, social, religious, and moral views. But they don’t have to endorse or support a particular point of view while doing this broader ministry work.
In short, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will allow chaplains to fulfill their role of serving all members of the military without sacrificing an ounce of their religious liberties. Claims to the contrary are inaccurate and misleading. They should be put to rest.
Dr. Israel Drazin is a rabbi and lawyer in Boca Raton, Florida. He is a retired assistant chief of chaplains with the rank of brigadier general.
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