- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

There could be some unintended collateral damage when it comes to the question of openly practicing gays and lesbians in the military.

The issue could pit political correctness against First Amendment rights, some say — and a battleground is erupting over a simple public speaking engagement.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Thursday that the chaplain’s office of Andrews Air Force Base rescinded a long-standing invitation for him to speak at a prayer luncheon on base.

Mr. Perkins said military officials became concerned after he spoke out against President Obama’s call to Congress to lift all restrictions on service in the military by gays and lesbians, made during his State of the Union address.

Mr. Perkins said the base sent him a letter Jan. 29 informing him that his opinions were “incompatible” for “military members who serve our elected officials and our Commander in Chief.”

The lunch was off, in other words.

Mr. Perkins, a former Marine and an ordained minster, is worried about greater implications.

“I am disappointed that I’ve been denied the opportunity to speak to members of the military, in a non-political way, solely because I exercised my free speech rights in a different forum,” Mr. Perkins said. “It’s ironic that this blacklisting should occur because I called for the retention and enforcement of a valid federal statute.”

He said he fears that the proposed legislation “would result in a zero-tolerance policy toward those who disapprove of homosexual conduct.” He also envisions a day when military chaplins who preach about certain biblical passages condemning homosexuality will be censored.

“I urge Congress, the president, and the top leadership of our military to place the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty ahead of the fashionable political correctness of a special interest group,” he concludes. The Air Force responded to the delicate situation late Thursday.

“The Joint Base Andrews Chaplain’s Office sponsors a voluntary, annual prayer luncheon, focusing this year on deployed personnel, families and prayer. The Chaplain’s Office retracted Mr. Perkins’ invitation after his recent public comments made many who planned to attend the event uncomfortable,” the office said in a statement.

“This was a local decision made by the Chaplain’s Office who wanted the luncheon to be inclusive for the entire base community. The Chaplain’s Office respects and defends Mr. Perkins right to express his opinions, and regrets any inconvenience to him. We thank and respect him for his prior military service.”

Catholic League President Bill Donohue calls Mr. Perkins’ rejection “political correctness at a dangerous level,” and is calling for an investigation.

“There are legitimate reasons to accept and reject the current policy regarding gays in the military. No one, therefore, should be censored from speaking at any private or public forum — much less a military instillation — because of his or her views on this subject,” Mr. Donohue said.

“While the most immediate issue is the blacklisting of Perkins, the larger issue is the ‘chilling effect’ this decision will have on the free speech and religious liberty rights of all those who serve in the military, especially clergymen.”

Mr. Donohue plans to contact Maj. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, commander of the Air Force District of Washington at Andrews Air Force Base, asking for a probe into this matter. He’s also intent on rallying his own followers.

“It is important that the public affairs office at Andrews hear from Catholic League members about this very disturbing issue,” Mr. Donohue said.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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