Religious freedom for military being negotiated by Senate-House conference committee
WASHINGTON (BP) -- A congressional conference committee is negotiating whether the federal government will protect the religious freedom of military chaplains and armed services members regarding homosexuality and same-sex "marriage."
The panel of Senate and House of Representatives members is expected to finalize within days its report on the National Defense Authorization Act, which empowers spending for military activities in the next fiscal year. The version of the authorization bill approved this year by the House includes language protecting religious liberty and conscience rights, in addition to requiring compliance with the Defense of Marriage Act. The Senate-approved version does not contain such provisions.
The Southern Baptist Convention's ethics entity is among the organizations urging the conference committee to include the House language in its final report, which must be approved by both chambers of Congress. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and others say the provisions are necessary because of actions taken the last two years under the Obama administration.
In September 2011, the Pentagon announced two new policies, one authorizing homosexual "weddings" or ceremonies on Defense Department property and another permitting chaplains to participate in such events. The announcements came only 10 days after the official lifting of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the longstanding ban on open homosexuality in the military that was repealed by Congress and President Obama in late 2010.
Critics say those Defense Department memos violated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defines marriage federally as being only between a man and a woman. Shortly after the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), the president announced his administration would no longer defend DOMA in court.
The Pentagon's new policies threaten the religious liberty of chaplains and members of the armed services, President Richard Land of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said in a Dec. 13 letter to a leading Republican.
Many chaplains and service members "profess religious beliefs that prevent them from condoning or accepting some of the lifestyle choices and behaviors of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community [LGBT]," Land told Arizona Sen. John McCain, the lead GOP member of the Armed Services Committee. "Yet there is growing evidence confirming that service members who hold these religious beliefs face discrimination and career penalties if they remain true to their consciences. Regrettably, the Pentagon's policies actively pressure these brave men and women to choose between serving their country and holding true to their deeply-held religious faith."
The House-approved version incorporates language from the Military Religious Freedom Act, which was sponsored by Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R.-Kan. Sen. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss., has introduced a companion bill in his chamber.
That language says neither a chaplain's refusal to perform a ceremony based on his faith nor a service member's beliefs regarding human sexuality shall provide the basis for "any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment."
In a May conference in Washington, representatives of military chaplains said DADT's repeal had produced stress for some chaplains and service members. An increasing intolerance toward religion appears to be a byproduct, said Douglas Carver, executive director of chaplaincy services for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board (NAMB) and a retired Army Chief of Chaplains.
"I can assure you that a tension exists in this area," Carver said. "For example, the Department of Defense no longer considers homosexuality a moral issue. It is an amoral issue. To them, it's a concern of human dignity, respect, discipline and professionalism. However, a number of our chaplains and troops believe that homosexuality is a moral issue."
Carver added, "There is a growing concern over political correctness and how it may inhibit freedom of religious expression, especially while in uniform."
NAMB-endorsed chaplains do not support same-sex "marriages" or civil unions, Carver reiterated in July. The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which consists of more than 2,000 mostly evangelical Christian military chaplains, has said its members will not perform gay "weddings." The Roman Catholic Archdiocese for Military Service also has said its members will not officiate at such ceremonies.
Land said in his letter to McCain, "In addition to the sizable Southern Baptist representation among the chaplaincy and the military at large, we stand alongside chaplains and service members of all faiths, and of no faith, to protect their freedoms of conscience and religious expression."
In addition to their religious freedom concerns with the Defense authorization bill, social conservatives and other pro-life advocates also are opposed to an effort to weaken the ban on abortions using Defense Department funds or facilities. The lone exception in past Defense authorization measures has been for the life of the mother, but the latest Senate-passed version includes exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.