Within the next several months several critical marriage cases will come before the Supreme Court. The challenge to Proposition 8—the California constitutional amendment that states only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in that state—is one of the most important cases of recent times. The constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, will also be examined.
If DOMA is overturned, chaplains in our Armed Forces will be the first to feel the negative effects. Because the military does not create its own religious ministries, the Armed Services depend on religious leadership from the churches and religious bodies of America. Chaplains are endorsed to serve through cooperative channels between the religious body, the Department of Defense's Armed Forces Chaplains Board, and the respective service branch. Should the government normalize homosexual marriage, chaplains would be confronted with a difficult moral choice of choosing to serve their God or serve Caesar. Because of the high percentage of theologically conservative and biblically oriented chaplains within each military branch, the conflict will be real and a cause for great concern.
New Threats for Chaplains
Should our courts adopt a new policy of special protection of same-sex arrangements—as currently seems likely—the repercussions will threaten chaplains. The practice and expression of traditional religious beliefs in an "open setting" will be threatened under the loss of DOMA. This collision has not yet occurred but the scenario has been set. Recently the Department of Defense (under Secretary Panetta) released guidelines for all military commands to recognize same-sex domestic partner benefits including issuance of I.D. Cards, Exchange/Commissary privileges, as well as a number of other benefits. The current administration seems to assume that DOMA is inevitably doomed and is attempting to tip the scales in favor of abolishing it altogether.
As a former chaplain in the Navy and a current chaplain endorser, let me suggest several ways our chaplains will be adversely affected should DOMA be struck down.
Chaplains will be constrained in sharing their religious beliefs on marriage. Chaplains who teach and preach the truth of Scripture will inevitably be challenged when discussing the subject of marriage. If consistent and faithful to the Scriptures, chaplains will be pressured to either compromise or face conflict—and likely discipline by the military—at some point in their ministries.
Chaplains could face adverse discipline or have shortened careers if they remain true to their faith group's teachings or personal convictions. Self-imposed limitations will be necessary regarding certain moral issues. Thus, exercise of full religious freedom (guaranteed in the First Amendment) might be sacrificed.
Chaplains will face challenges related to heterosexual marriage counseling. In an effort to promote and encourage heterosexual marriage, chaplains conducting couples' retreat ministry will face serious challenges and restrictions on their counseling. The teachings of fidelity, commitment, love, and God-centered marriage will be in serious conflict with the amoralistic themes of the current mandates promulgated in the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Marriage enrichment programs funded by the military will be hard-pressed to find conscientious Christian chaplains willing to continue to lead them as they have in the past.
Chaplains will face challenges related to their refusal to endorse homosexual relationships. In counseling situations, chaplains who criticize same-sex conduct or decline to perform a homosexual marriage could face discrimination or censure. Similarly, in the conduct of religious services, chaplains cooperate with other chaplains. Conflicts will arise when a conservative is expected or requested to lead worship or religious rites alongside an openly homosexual chaplain. Such a scenario would require the chaplain to compromise deeply held religious beliefs or face charges of discrimination.
Cooperation Without Compromise?
We know that God is sovereign and that his work will not be thwarted, but the chaplain's labor is going to be more challenging and precarious. The same will be true for all faithful believers in military leadership. In this imminent collision of cultural values, the effects of abolishing DOMA will be widespread and unleash serious threats to religious liberties. But chaplains will be the first to who decide whether their longtime Chaplains Corps motto of "cooperation without compromise" can stand the test of the impending court action.