Chaplains in military fear fallout from repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'
Beth Coye tries on her bucket hat, part of the uniform she wore as a U.S. Navy commander before retiring in 1980. Ms. Coye is a member of the Forum on Military Chaplaincy, a gay rights group advising the Pentagon on the impending repeal of its ban on gays.
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During Beth Coye's 21 years in the U.S. Navy, she never considered approaching a chaplain about the dilemmas she faced as a closeted lesbian forced to dismiss other gays from the service. The retired Navy commander grew up attending Navy chapel with her military family, but didn't trust them with her secret.
Today, Ms. Coye, a former Episcopalian, is a Unitarian on the Forum on Military Chaplaincy, a gay rights group advising the Pentagon on the impending repeal of its ban on gays.
Training for the repeal must be under way by Tuesday. The repeal becomes effective 60 days after the Pentagon certifies readiness.
Ms. Coye knows that many chaplains fear the repeal, and she wants them to know that it won't restrict what they teach about sexual morality.
Others express concern for the consequences of the repeal on openly gay service members, saying they fear that some conservative chaplains might not minister compassionately to them.
Ms. Coye tells those on both sides to be patient with each other.
"We need better ways to communicate and learn from each other, or we will have more difficulty than we need to," she said. "I'm very hopeful that the repeal will create a much better atmosphere in the military and for the country. But we need to do it right and well."
The majority of 3,000 chaplains are theologically conservative Christians, many of whom worry that they will be accused of hate speech if they preach that same-sex relationships are sinful. But a Pentagon study found only 2 percent would leave due to a repeal.
"Our chaplains feel that this is God's calling on their lives. A change in a law or in a policy isn't going to have an impact on that," said Mike Ebert, a spokesman for the North American Mission Board, which endorses Southern Baptist chaplains for the military. Every chaplain must be endorsed by a religious body.
His agency opposed the repeal and has asked chaplains to report any infringement on their ministry.
The military's bottom line is that no chaplain will be penalized for teaching that gay sex is sinful.
"Service members must not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs," said the Support Plan for Implementation of the repeal. "They must, however, continue to respect and co-exist with others who may hold different views and beliefs."
The plan tells trainers for the repeal to "use language that is respectful of all perspectives. ... This includes gay and lesbian individuals as well as people of faith who have moral concerns with repeal, all of whom can be stereotyped in a negative way."
Nevertheless, the Pray in Jesus Name Project, which supports conservative chaplains, has called the Pentagon guidelines the "plan to purge Christians" from chaplaincy.
"Now the Obama Administration is officially on record pressuring chaplains to quit the service if they cannot 'reconcile' with homosexual sin that violates their Christian conscience," said a petition on its website.
The "purge" is a clause that says chaplains have an option to leave the military that isn't open to others who object to serving with gay troops. They can ask their faith group to withdraw its endorsement, which would trigger a discharge.
Retired Brig. Gen. Douglas E. Lee, a former Army chaplain who endorses for six conservative Presbyterian bodies, is less alarmist, but shares the concern that protection of religious freedom may erode.
"The fundamental issue for us is morality, but the debate is being purposely framed as a civil rights or a discrimination issue," he said.
Homosexuality is "just another sin that affects soldiers, airmen, guardians and Marines. However no other category that we would declare as sin is ... claiming civil rights to be a serial adulterer."
Any charges of hate speech will "depend on how the chaplains handle themselves," said the Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain and endorser for the United Church of Christ, which affirms gay sexuality.
"They are entitled to preach whatever they think is necessary in the context of a worship service, but they certainly wouldn't be allowed to go around speaking against homosexuals in terms of their daily rounds in command. That would be counterproductive to good order and discipline. You don't go around speaking against your fellow soldiers."
The chaplains' motto is "we provide for our own, we facilitate for others and we care for all," he said. "If a Southern Baptist chaplain does not feel that he can provide [gay affirmative] counseling, that chaplain still has the obligation to refer or to facilitate the providing of service by someone who is willing to do that."
Rabbi Alvin Berkun, a retired Navy chaplain and rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, doesn't believe much will change. He chairs the group that endorses Conservative rabbis as military chaplains.
"This doesn't mean that chaplains suddenly have to be supportive [of same-sex relationships], but it does mean that they have to accept them as legitimate service members and minister to their needs, which they have done for decades," he said.
The training materials include an example of a complaint against a chaplain for preaching that homosexuality is a sin. The official response upholds the chaplain.
"This situation is an excellent opportunity to have a discussion with the [accusing] service member about religious respect and the proper boundaries of religious expression within the military. ... [T]he service member may request assistance from the chaplain's office in finding a different religious service to attend," the guidelines said.
Rev. Lee said early indications is that the training is "somewhat benign" but he anticipates problems later on.
"I'd like to be proved wrong, but you don't have to look very far to see where people would like to go," he said.
He cited two federal court cases that upheld the expulsion of Christian students from graduate counseling programs because they had sought to refer gay clients to other therapists who could affirm their sexuality. He believes the precedents could eventually apply to chaplains.
"There are chaplains who are concerned that they will be discriminated against. While I sympathize with that fear, it's an interesting conundrum when they're presenting it under the rubric of discriminating against someone else," said the Rev. Sarah Lammert, the endorser for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Rev. Lee says the conservative chaplains won't deny pastoral care.
"We already take care of gay people. The question isn't will chaplains take care of gay people, but will the homosexual community allow us to preach and teach and counsel people, with [their] permission?" he said.
He can't imagine any chaplain refusing to comfort the gay partner of a soldier wounded in battle. Sexuality "doesn't matter to the chaplain in that setting," he said.
"There are all kinds of ways that chaplains are trained to provide for that couple. It's not a question of how will our chaplains deal with this, but how will the [gay] community deal with this? When it comes to taking care of people, chaplains will do it."
First Published February 27, 2011 12:00 am