- Associated Press - Sunday, October 31, 2010

RALEIGH, N.C. | Dozens of retired military chaplains say that serving both God and the U.S. armed forces will become impossible for chaplains whose faiths consider homosexuality a sin if the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is ended.

If a chaplain preaches against homosexuality, he could conceivably be disciplined as a bigot under the military’s nondiscrimination policy, the retired chaplains say. The Pentagon, however, says chaplains’ religious beliefs and their need to express them will be respected.

Clergy would be ineligible to serve as chaplains if their churches withdraw their endorsements, as some have threatened to do if “don’t ask, don’t tell” ends. Critics of allowing openly gay troops fear that clergy will leave the service or be forced to find other jobs in the military that don’t involve their faiths.

“The bottom line is religious freedom,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee, one of 65 former chaplains who signed a letter urging President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to keep “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

A federal judge threw out the policy last month, but it remains in effect while the federal government appeals the ruling. Under the 1993 law, the military cannot inquire into service members’ sexual orientation and punish them for it as long as they keep it to themselves. Mr. Obama favors repealing the law but wants it done by Congress.

Opponents of the ban argue that military chaplains have a different job than ministering to a parish where everyone shares the same beliefs. They must respect all faiths and counsel all service members, from devout Muslims to atheists.

“My heart doesn’t bleed for these chaplains,” said Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. “If you don’t like it, there’s a very simple solution: Fold your uniform, file the paperwork and find something else to do.”

Officials at North Carolina’s sprawling Fort Bragg Army post and the Armed Forces Chaplains Board did not respond to requests to interview active military chaplains about the issue. The group of retired chaplains who wrote the letter to Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates said they were speaking out because active chaplains could be accused of insubordination if they publicly oppose repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“Many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men,” they wrote in the Sept. 16 letter.

The Defense Department has not said specifically how it would address any potential conflicts with chaplains stemming from the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the military would not force chaplains to keep their beliefs silent. “Chaplains are allowed to speak according to the dictates of their faith,” she said.

“With great acumen, chaplains, throughout the Department’s history, have found means wherein they could strike a balance between faith group requirements and Department of Defense needs,” Miss Lainez said. “Members who feel something is inappropriate may always utilize their chain of command, the inspector general or other systems already in place, to address their concerns.”

Members of the clergy have been ministering to American troops since the Revolution. There are about 3,000 chaplains on active duty, most from theologically conservative faiths and organizations.

In the Army, the U.S. military’s largest branch, the largest denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, with roughly 450 active chaplains. Next is the Roman Catholic Church, with 270, followed by chaplains from the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church; Presbyterian and Reformed churches; and Assemblies of God.

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon said chaplains must have the endorsement of their church or religious organization to serve the role. If a chaplain’s church withdraws its endorsement, the military begins processing the chaplain to leave the military.

Several denominations have already threatened to take such a step, citing long lists of potential conflicts the chaplains could face with openly gay soldiers.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church in America, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Rabbinical Alliance of America have issued statements or written to the Obama administration this year with their concerns that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” could force their chaplains to choose between serving God and serving the military.

The Orthodox Church in America, for example, condemns homosexuality and mandates that the appropriate action its ministers should take toward gay people who seek counseling is to steer them to repent and renounce the gay lifestyle.

“If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service,” the church informed the Pentagon in May.

The Catholic Church likewise deems homosexual behavior a sin.

“This means that Catholic chaplains must show compassion for persons with a homosexual orientation, but can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio said in a June letter calling for “don’t ask” to remain in place. Archbishop Broglio leads the Archdiocese for Military Services and is the church’s chief liaison to the military.