Yes, We Do Need Separation of Church and State

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Maintains These Boundaries

Bishop Gene Robinson debunks Archbishop Timothy Broglio’s claims that repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” brings the government into religion.

Man takes part in a rally in front of the Capitol supporting efforts to repeal
Man takes part in a rally in front of the Capitol supporting efforts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (AP/Susan Walsh)

Archbishop for the Military Services USA Timothy Broglio released a statement earlier this month arguing that the federal government should not repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prevents gay and lesbian men and women from serving openly in the military. He claims that doing so would compromise the faith and role of Roman Catholic military chaplains. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. His arguments are so spurious and misguided it is hard to find a place to begin in refuting them.

The separation of church and state is not threatened by a change in the DADT policy, despite the archbishop’s claims. No Roman Catholic chaplain, nor any other chaplain with negative views of homosexuality, will be required to teach, preach, or counsel anything outside their own beliefs. No gay or lesbian serving in the military would expect to go to such a chaplain and receive a blessing on his or her sexual orientation.

The archbishop restates in his letter what everyone knows: The Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “are contrary to the natural law” and that “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” If you go to a chaplain with those beliefs under a repealed DADT, that’s still what you’re going to get in the way of counsel. What you won’t get under the repeal is a dishonorable discharge to boot!

I wholeheartedly agree with the archbishop that “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted. First Amendment rights regarding the free exercise of religion must be respected.” I would fight to the death for those protections. Fortunately, no such restrictions or limitations would be required after DADT is repealed. Period. To suggest otherwise indicates either ignorance of the proposed legislation or a disingenuousness that is not befitting a clergyman.

The archbishop goes on to say that “unions between individuals of the same gender resembling marriage will not be accepted or blessed by Catholic chaplains.” Of course not. No chaplain is required to marry or bless any relationship against his or her will—just as no such requirement is made of any clergyperson in American society. This is a red herring—a strenuous objection to a problem that does not exist. DADT is not about relationships or marriage. It is about who is allowed to serve their country in the military.

The archbishop inexplicably goes on to drag alcoholics into the debate: “For years, those struggling with alcoholism have benefitted [sic] from Alcoholics Anonymous. Like homosexuality, there is rarely a cure. There is a control through a process, which is guarded by absolute secrecy. It is an equivalent to ‘Don’t ask don’t tell’. The process has worked well for some time without the charge that it is discriminatory.”

I can say as a recovering alcoholic and a gay man that there is no end to the problems with this analogy. No one would argue with the reality of the havoc created by an addiction to alcohol—a toll of pain and trouble visited on the individual, families, and society alike. No such social toll is caused by men and women proudly saying to the world, “I’m gay.” Saying that there is no cure for homosexuality, as for alcoholism, is to say that there is something that needs curing. The archbishop is welcome to his opinion, but he must admit that it flies in the face of contrary judgments by every reputable psychiatric association in the world.

The secrecy referred to in AA is an internal protection, providing a safe place to talk about one’s drinking. There is no secrecy recommended or required about being an alcoholic—only a secrecy about the identity of those one has met at an AA meeting. In fact, part of the healing process for alcoholics in AA is “coming out” to family and friends about their alcoholism, making restitution for the pain caused others, and a healthy admission of the truth: “Hello. My name is Gene, and I’m an alcoholic.”

It is terribly misguided to equate Alcoholics Anonymous—which encourages its adherents to admit that they have no control over their drinking, except by the grace of a higher power—to the sheer, white-knuckled suppression of innate feelings by those who find themselves affectionally oriented to persons of the same gender. And it does justice to neither. Such a suppression of feelings is certainly possible—gay and lesbian people have been doing it for centuries, with enormous and tragic consequences. The question is: Is it right? Is it healthy? Is it what God wants for one of his beloved children? I think not.

I am not saying that the archbishop has no right to his religiously held beliefs. My question is whether the church has the right to impose those beliefs on the state. Separation of church and state works both ways! Just as the archbishop argues that he should not be coerced by the state to change his beliefs (I totally agree!), so must the church not impose its beliefs on the secular state and its military. The church has no right to argue for less-than-equal rights for any American citizen.

Bishop Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Bishop Gene Robinson

Former Senior Fellow