Hijacking the military chaplaincy

The bill’s only check on excessive proselytizing would be limiting speech and actions that actually harm unit cohesion, as opposed to threatening to harm or undermine unit cohesion.  This language would present a major obstacle for preventing discriminatory, anti-gay speech and actions as actual harm would be difficult to prove.

The military is already dealing with a host of difficult policy issues and can ill afford to add one as inflammatory as this to the list.  This problem is exacerbated by pressuring LGB service members to remain in the closet and remain silent in the face of having anti-gay theology and even gay epithets thrust upon them.  Few would find the courage to go to their chain of command to complain.  As with sexual assault, the fear of retribution and negative career impact would likely allow this abuse to continue unabated.  And the impact would extend beyond the LGB service member cohort as others would react negatively to the institutionally condoned proselytizing and subtle coercion by either declining to reenlist or never enlisting, thus reducing military readiness and capability.

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The very same people who opposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act are advancing the underlying political battle.  Having lost those fights they now seek to undermine these civil rights advances.  While many LGB soldiers have come out, many more have remained closeted because of the anti-gay culture that persists in the military, presenting a hostile environment to gays.  Leadership should be working to change this culture just as it continues to struggle against those opposing women from serving alongside of men, and those decades ago who opposed integration of African Americans.

Retired Army Chaplain (Brigadier General) Douglas Lee serves as the chaplain endorser for the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission, and is an outspoken leader in the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL).  Recently, he charged the Commander in Chief with rejecting "protections of American religious conscience and First Amendment principles" (Alliance Alert, June 13, 2013).  Of course, that is patently untrue.  Either Chaplain Lee is woefully misinformed regarding constitutional law and military policy, or he is deliberately misrepresenting the facts.

What has actually occurred is a collision within the First Amendment, pitting free speech against the religion clauses.  Conservative Republican members of Congress are attempting to change the Military Chaplaincy.  Using the ambit of free speech and concomitant actions they want to allow chaplains to freely espouse anti-gay vitriol cloaked in the cloth of religion.  This would tip the delicate balance between the religion clauses – suppressing the free exercise of religion of service members while moving dangerously close to establishing their anti-gay theology as the religion of the military.

Having uniformed clergy serve already strains the religion clauses, presenting an establishment clause problem in that uniformed officers represent a particular religion – predominately sects of Christianity – giving the appearance of sponsorship of that particular religion by the military and government.  However, without chaplains, service members’ ability to practice their own religion and obtain counseling in matters of conscience would be drastically curtailed.  The current system balances these competing interests by the creation of a pluralistic chaplaincy corps, making clerics accessible to service members while prohibiting proselytizing.  Under this balanced approach, the benefits to the free exercise of religion outweigh the tension the chaplaincy corps imposes to the establishment clause.

Conservatives, however, want to destroy this balance. If they are successful, it is reasonable to expect a legal challenge that could lead to the total elimination of the Military Chaplaincy.  The idea that the Military Chaplaincy could be totally eliminated is clearly a possible response to the "overreach" of conservative chaplains.  We have outsourced many activities and functions that are far more endemic to the military mission than the chaplaincy.  This would be a tragic loss for both "leaders" and service members.

The military, including the Chaplain Corps, should embrace LGB service members, and encourage them to serve openly – not shun them through a hostile environment of discriminatory speech and actions.  The All Volunteer Force needs every American who can meet its standards.  One’s sexual orientation, a belief in God, or the practice of one particular religion is not among those standards.  A self-serving conservative chaplaincy is creating an issue that harms morale, cohesion, and discipline and ultimately undermines readiness.

Laich retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 after thirty-five years service.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and has received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.  He spent the last fourteen consecutive years of his career in command positions.

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