Veteran Chaplains Speak Out for Conscience

Chuck Donovan /

A prominent group of retired military chaplains has written a letter to current chief chaplains in the Armed Forces urging them to support conscience protection for currently serving chaplains and service members regarding homosexual behavior. The 22 chaplains, each of whom has held a leadership post as an endorsing agent for military chaplains, called on the chief chaplains of the Army, Air Force, and Navy to “strongly encourage the adoption of broad, clear, and strong protections for conscience,” especially in light of recent confusion over the conduct of same-sex marriage ceremonies in military chapels.

That controversy emerged two weeks ago with reports that the Chief Chaplain of the U.S. Navy, Admiral Mark Tidd, had issued a guidance memo to Navy chaplains advising them that they were free to officiate at same-sex weddings off-base and to conduct them in military chapels in the handful of states where such ceremonies are legal. Publicity about the memo ignited a media firestorm because of its apparent conflict with the federal Defense of Marriage Act and with previous Department of Defense assurances that the repeal of the ban on open homosexual conduct in the military had no implication for the redefinition of marriage. After the public uproar over the Tidd memo, it was swiftly suspended pending further review.

The May 23 letter from the chaplains, who have had special roles in the past in overseeing their denomination’s endorsement or “certification” of individuals seeking to serve as members of the Chaplain Corps, states their concern that, though suspended, the memo “might be a sign of things to come.” They underscore that the same-sex wedding policy—whose legal justification, if any, was never disclosed—could re-emerge and that it had been issued in the first place without consultation of any kind with the chaplaincy corps. They also offered the opinion, which others have expressed, that existing guidance appears to protect the freedom of speech and religion for chaplains only “in chapel services” and not, as the letter puts it, “everywhere military necessity has placed” the chaplains.

Similar concerns prompted the House Armed Services Committee when it met on May 11 and 12 to adopt a series of amendments designed to strengthen the application of the Defense of Marriage Act to the Armed Forces. The Committee also adopted an amendment expanding the list of military officers who must certify that the repeal of the 1993 law on open military service by homosexuals can be implemented without harm to military readiness or morale. The expanded list would include the service chiefs for each branch of the Armed Forces, most of whom expressed serious reservations about the repeal before it was adopted last year.

The letter concludes by asking the chief chaplains to join the retired endorsers in supporting action by Congress to adopt “specific and intentional conscience protections.” Given the Obama Administration’s history of misdirection on marriage and its legal defense, the addition of the chief chaplains’ voices on behalf of conscience rights would be a welcome development.