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OutServe Magazine | December 19, 2014

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Chaplains’ View: Same-Sex Marriage

Chaplains’ View: Same-Sex Marriage

Military Same Sex Marriage as a Religious Rite and Right: A Chaplain’s View

by Paul W. Dodd, Chaplain (Colonel), U.S. Army (Ret) and
Tom Carpenter, Esq. (CAPT USMC 1970-1982) and Elder, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Co-Chairs, Forum on the Military Chaplaincy

Tech. Sgt. Umali and Mr. Behrens’ wedding photo

A wedding took place this past weekend at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakewood in New Jersey, a state that allows civil unions.  An Airman and his civilian husband, Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali and Will Behrens, were the proud couple.  Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb, who performed the ceremony, is endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  The chaplain was performing the duties required of her by the Consitution and in conformity with the traditions of her denomination. Clearly, there will be major pushback from those opposed to marriage equality and who claim to believe in the exercise of religious freedom, so long as the relgion is theirs.

Last month an enlisted soldier and her partner were quietly blessed in a private religious ceremony at an Army chapel.  Word leaked out, however, unleashing a vociferous attack by Republican congressmen and  others, who condemned the “marriage-like ceremony” as illegal and a desecration.

That religious ceremony marked the first known use of a military chapel for a same-sex couple, a highly charged political issue.  The service – at an installation chapel at Fort Polk, La., – had no legal effect as Louisiana does not recognize gay marriages or civil unions.  It was solely a religious rite under the auspices of their religious denomination – a simple expression of their free exercise of religion.

“It’s outrageous and illegal,” crowed Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), a member of the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America, and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who has introduced several bills to prevent such ceremonies.

Akin’s colleage, Rep. John  Fleming (R-LA), a Southern Baptist who represents the district where Fort Polk is located, chimed in that “A same-sex marriage-like ceremony should not have occurred at Fort Polk, especially since the people of Louisiana have made it abundantly clear that our state does not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions.”

This statement is curious as that ceremony never purported to constitute a gay marriage or civil union.  It was never intended to be made public, let alone make national news.

The ceremony was made public by retired Army Chaplain Ron  Crews, the Executive Director of the Chaplains Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL),  an organization made up of retired conservative military chaplains. The name is an oxymoron, as CARL seeks the free exercise of their conservative religious beliefs while repressing that of other faith groups.

“Marriage-like” has become a virtual buzz word among opponents of marriage equality, ignoring the fact that the simple blessing of a loving and committed same-sex relationship does nothing to confer the 1,138 federal benefits of civil marriage.  Hardly “marriage-like.”

Akin and Fleming were backed up by Tony Perkins, a Southern Baptist, and president of the right-wing Family Research Council, who said the ceremony was a  clear violation of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). These three could not be more wrong.

They ignore the fact that in many churches and temples across America, religious leaders are joyfully conducting same-sex commitment ceremonies, unions, and marriages. These religious rites may or may not have legal significance, but they are not prohibited. The Fort Polk couple is not married under the laws of Louisiana or the United States; they had a religious rite, without any of the legal rights of marriage.

Here were three American citizens merely carrying out their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion. Crews, Fleming, Aiken and Perkins would deny them this most important religious liberty. Why? Because this rite, the ritual blessing of a same-sex couple, does not comport with their conservative religious beliefs. Of course, they will not admit to this, so they very cleverly conflated a religious rite with a legal right. This is the strategy being employed throughout the country by those who oppose marriage equality.

They claim to be in favor of religious liberty, but the truth is, only so long as it is consistent with their beliefs. They don’t approve of same-sex ceremonies, so they would bar other denominations from performing them – by their logic, they can dictate what ceremonies an Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, Catholic or Jewish chaplain is allowed to perform! This is patent nonsense. Are these three going to tell chaplains they can’t conduct a funeral for a gay soldier killed in action? How far will they go?

Even though the Fort Polk ceremony was not a civil marriage, the civil union ceremony held this weekend in New Jersey has a legal impact. This rite, voluntarily performed by a chaplain endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — a denomination that allows same sex marriage — will provide the couple marital rights under state law.

Try as these opponents may, DOMA will not prevent these legal marriages from being celebrated on any military installation in a state with marriage equality laws. To do otherwise would be to deny that soldier (or Marine, or sailor, or airman) their religious liberty to the ceremonies practiced by their faith group. The policy of the Department of Defense is clear: “A military chaplain may participate in or officiate any private ceremony, whether on or off a military installation, provided that the ceremony is not prohibited by applicable state and local law.”

Military chaplains exist to serve our military members. Period. The job of the chaplain is to “perform or provide” the religious ceremonies that the service member requests. Those who would deny these patriots the right to exercise their religious rites do not understand the military OR the chaplaincy.

We salute the chaplains who conducted the rites in Lousianna and New Jersey. They are witness to the highest standards  of the military chaplaincy.

The following are statements of support for the Chaplain who conducted the ceremony at Fort Polk from leaders of a Texas based seminary:

“Religious freedom in the United States is a central conviction around which the values and beliefs of our country have been shaped and I am pleased to offer support to any military chaplain who feels the moral obligation to respond to the pastoral needs of those whom that chaplain serves. Those who are called to serve in military chaplaincy do so by standing on the integrity and commitment of diverse religious traditions. The work of chaplains, in part, is to discern what is most needed in the spiritual lives of those whom he or she serves. Believing that same-gender-loving people are invited into faithful relationships and that God blesses such relationships, this chaplain offered a religious ceremony that honored and valued not only that relationship, but God’s presence in that relationship. I am pleased that a chaplain so valued the relationship of two people who wanted to commit themselves to one another in the presence of God that he offered a religious ritual in order to formally recognize that relationship.”

Joretta Marshall, Ph.D.
Dean and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care and Counseling
Brite Divinity School
Fort Worth, Texas

“As a professor and ordained minister who has worked closely with women and men preparing for military chaplaincy at Brite Divinity School for twenty years, I believe the religious action of a U. S. Army chaplain to bless a union of two same-gender-loving people to be in the best tradition of generous, strong, and faithful ministry in the twenty-first century.  The hallmarks of good ministry are authenticity and adherence to one’s faith tradition, care and  compassion for the people one serves, intelligent decision making about what best meets the needs of those one is called by God to serve, and the willingness to serve all the people with theological courage. I am pleased that a military chaplain has acted in accordance with the best practices of ministry in the Armed Forces of the United States to meet the request of troops for a blessing upon their relationship in love.  What this chaplain has done breathes new life into the Golden Rule: to act in good faith toward others as we would wish others to act toward us. This is a good model of how pastoral ministry should be done anywhere, and it upholds the principles of religious liberty and the freedom to express one’s religious faith–foundational principles of the Constitution that all Americans cherish, regardless of denominational or faith community affiliation.”

Stephen V. Sprinkle, Ph.D.
Director of Field Education and Supervised Ministry, and
Professor of Practical Theology
Brite Divinity School
Fort Worth, Texas