Evangelical Groups Divided on Issue of Military Chaplains and Gay Marriage

After the Supreme Court's decision, evangelical groups are on different sides of the fence.

Navy Chaplain Kay Reed officiates the civil union ceremony of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali, right, and his partner Will Behrens at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst on June 23, 2012,  in Wrightstown, N.J.
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Some evangelical groups are gearing up for a fight on military chaplains and same-sex marriage while others say they'll seek a middle ground after the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, which publicly questioned an Air Force chaplain in 2012 for "watching supportively" during a same-sex civil union, says it is working to better protect chaplains from any pressures to marry same-sex couples. That chaplain later resigned.

"Same-sex marriage is going to bring some immediate challenges when it comes to [military] chaplaincy, not only when it comes to who marries whom, but whom counsels whom," says Dr. Russell Moore, president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "So we have to fight on this end to ... tell chaplains how to advocate for themselves."

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The Department of Defense has previously said no chaplain would be forced to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if it conflicts with his or her religious beliefs. Nathan Christensen, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, reiterated that position to U.S. News on Thursday.

But the group Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, whose members come from evangelical or orthodox Christian backgrounds, says it remains concerned – especially about the military marriage retreats that take place before or after deployment.

"If they include same sex-couples in those retreats, that puts chaplains and commanders in a difficult position," says Ron Crews, the group's executive director. "We are proposing that commanders offer two retreats: one for same-sex couples, and one for those who hold the traditional definition of marriage."

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Some evangelical groups, however, are seeking more neutral territory. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for one, is allowing chaplains to make decisions at a local level about how to handle gay marriage.

"We have chaplains from the ELCA who have reservations about responding to requests of same sex couples, and others who are quite responsive," says Rev. Eric Wester in the ELCA's Bureau for Federal Chaplaincy Ministries. "For chaplains who are reluctant, we fully support them making a referral to other chaplains to others who might be more supportive."

Pastor Kay Reed, a retired chaplain with ELCA, caused a minor stir when she performed a civil union ceremony in June 2012, one of the first gay marriages on a military base. But she says the "entire command was extremely supportive."

"I didn't see any push back from folks in the military," says Reed, who served as a Navy chaplain for 20 years. "I think there's sometimes an unnecessary amount of fear generated."

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Reed says chaplains who aren't comfortable providing pastoral care for a service member can always refer that person to another chaplain of a different faith group.

Because chaplains come from many different faiths, the LGBT military group Outserve-SLDN isn't worried about same-sex couples getting the services they need. "There are about a dozen denominations [in the chaplaincy] whose rules support doing same-sex services," says Jonathan Hopkins, a spokesman for the group. However, he said it was problematic that those denominations "may not be represented in military chaplains in the same proportion as service members" of those faiths.

While just 3 percent of service members identify with evangelical faiths, for example, some 33 percent of military chaplains are evangelical, according to the Pentagon.

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Updated on 07/22/13: The Southern Baptist Convention responded to say a chaplain who watched a same-sex civil union resigned after the conservative denomination questioned his attendance.