Chaplains Ignored in DADT Repeal Debate

When Congress and President Obama repealed the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, the warnings of military chaplains went unheeded.


WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s signature on the bill repealing the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy portends ominous consequences for the armed forces’ morale and fighting effectiveness.

That’s according to people who opposed reversing the Clinton-era compromise on military prohibitions on homosexuality dating back to the earliest days of the U.S. armed forces. (U.S. Navy prohibitions against immoral conduct were penned by John Adams in the mid-1770s.)

The new policy of allowing homosexuals in the military to be open about their same-sex lifestyles, they warn, also threatens the religious freedom of military chaplains. About 3,000 chaplains serve in the armed forces.

“There is no other explanation for this happening [other] than that the president had campaign promises to fulfill, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for the breaking of promises by six senators,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which bills itself as an “independent public-policy organization that specializes in military-personnel issues.”

“They knew that the law wouldn’t have been repealed if it went before the next Congress,” Donnelly said.

Obama signed the repeal of the ban on openly homosexual men and women serving in the ranks Dec. 22, thus fulfilling a campaign pledge to his LGBT (“lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender”) activist supporters. The bill passed in the House Dec. 15 with a 275-175 vote and in the Senate Dec. 18 by 63-31.

The Human Rights Campaign, a 750,000-member LGBT civil-rights group that lobbied for repeal, called it “the best holiday gift for our gay, lesbian and bisexual troops.”

“Soon, gay and lesbian service members will be able to wake up and go to work without the fear of getting fired for their sexual orientation,” said the group’s release issued the same morning as Obama’s public signing ceremony. “The stain on American ideals is gone, forever,” it continued, noting that the repeal was “17 years in the making, and it’s about time.”

Calls and e-mails to the HRC for further comment went unreturned.

The American Civil Liberties Union was equally supportive of repeal.

“Today is a historic step forward for those who have lived their lives in silence while serving our country and for all Americans who believe in fairness and equality,” said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The reversal of this policy should serve as a message that discrimination has no place in our laws. The law now must be implemented by the Department of Defense to ensure that no more service members are unfairly discharged. The sooner the law is implemented, the sooner our gay and lesbian service members can begin serving their country with honesty and dignity.”

‘Chaplains Weren’t Heeded’

The bill, which reverses the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise policy instituted by President Bill Clinton in 1993, passed less than three weeks after the Pentagon released its 300-page study of the repeal’s possible ramifications. Furthermore, it passed despite the promises of the united Republican caucus, made in a letter dated Nov. 29, not to vote on the bill pending the resolution of other legislative matters — namely, the extension of the Bush “tax cuts” — as well as a careful review of the report’s findings.

Nonetheless, Senate Republicans Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Ensign of Nevada, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, voted “aye.”

Bending to political pressure from the Obama administration and homosexual-rights groups, Donnelly said, these Republican senators and their pro-repeal colleagues have left the military hanging.

“This is the only military we have, and many of our service members’ voices were not listened to, including the chaplains’,” said Donnelly. A Catholic herself, she maintains that chaplains were given short shrift by a politically influenced Pentagon study more concerned with how to mitigate the effects of repealing the law than considering why the law should be repealed in the first place.

“So the president was able to make good on his political promise at the expense of the military and thanks to senators who broke their word in a Congress that he wouldn’t be able to rely upon in a month,” she said. “This won’t affect the people who voted on this and advocated for it in the Pentagon, but it will affect those who live under its repeal.”

According to the Pentagon’s report, nearly 60% of combat troops said the repeal will have “a negative or very negative impact on unit cohesion and performance.” Defense Department studies also show that 36% of soldiers and Marines in combat roles would either leave the service after their current tours of duty or seriously consider re-enlisting due to these policy changes without precedent in the U.S. military.

Prohibits Discrimination

The legalization of homosexual behavior in the armed forces opens a Pandora’s box of problems, both moral and legal, say those who opposed repeal.

Daniel Blomberg is litigation counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance of Christian attorneys that litigates on behalf of religious liberty, pro-life and family issues. He closely followed the repeal process and expects the repeal to cause “genuine” civil-rights abuses.

“We will be closely monitoring the repealed law’s replacement with new regulations that will prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual harassment,” he said the day before Obama signed the bill. “Such regulations [in civilian life] have been shown to be applied quite broadly, and used to squelch the free expression of one’s religious liberty. We expect this to be especially problematic in the military, which forges the closest of all relationships between the government and a ‘private citizen,’ who really isn’t a private citizen [but swears an oath to obey the president and his military superiors]. There’s no comparable vocation in American life.”

The Catholic Church fields the largest number of chaplains of any “denomination” or religion in the U.S. military. There are approximately 250 priests for the 20% of 1.5 million armed forces personnel describing themselves as Catholic (though chaplains of all persuasions are called to minister to any serviceman requesting counsel).

Even though they may be drawn from particular dioceses, all priests serving as chaplains are under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, which is located several blocks around the corner from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

What does America’s Catholic leadership think about the normalization of homosexuality within the armed forces? A legalization of conduct the objection to which, religious or otherwise, could result in the punishment of military personnel judged “insensitive” or “discriminatory” toward homosexual or transgendered service members?

Called for comment, the USCCB’s media relations department deferred questions to the military archdiocese, which in turn has no official comment since its head, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, issued an anti-repeal statement in June. His unheeded statement, at, cautioned against repeal on the grounds of prudence as well as morality (he related the Church’s position on homosexuality by quoting from the Catechism and said chaplains could not be expected to act against the faith, such as by blessing same-sex military unions).

“The effect of a repeal of the current legislation has the potential of being enormous and overwhelming,” Archbishop Broglio wrote. “Nothing should be changed until there is certainty that morale will not suffer. Sacrificing the moral beliefs of individuals or their living conditions to respond to merely political considerations is neither just nor prudent, especially for the armed forces at a time of war.”

No Longer a Moral Issue?

No Catholic chaplains, active or retired, could be reached for comment in time for this article’s deadline. Furthermore, a source at the military archdiocese said that “everybody is pretty much going to keep their mouths shut anyway,” perhaps until an official statement is released by the archbishop.

The Family Research Center, however, suggested speaking with a retired Presbyterian chaplain, who was available for comment from his home in Alexandria, Va.

Rev. Douglas Lee, who retired with the rank of brigadier general after 31 years in the Army, continues to endorse (i.e., certify as fit for military service) new Presbyterian chaplains. He foresees trouble with legitimizing behavior long deemed deleterious to military morale, as well as instituting sexual-harassment regulations that have had a chilling effect on Christians elsewhere in secular life, especially academia.

The repealed law’s replacement with sexual-harassment regulations “threatens the ability of chaplains to boldly teach, preach and counsel when their faith group believes homosexuality to be wrong: Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and many Protestant [denominations]. I’m concerned that there’s no guarantee that chaplains will be able to freely exercise their faith tenets down the road. It’s troubling when you look to what’s already happened with our allies [who adopted pro-homosexual policies]. In Canada, for example, military chaplains are prohibited from preaching, teaching or counseling against homosexuality.”

The retired chaplain’s concerns go beyond what he and other proponents of the way things were before the repeal describe as an issue narrowly conceived by media outlets which failed to educate the American public about the underlying issues. The issue is not merely the repeal of a policy, said Lee, but the moral and legislative implications of doing so.

“I’m very concerned that Congress has essentially declared that homosexuality is no longer immoral — not even a moral issue, but a civil right. So, we’re in an interesting position now, because our Congress is deciding moral and ethical issues based on political interests alone. Given this precedent, what will transpire down the road [for the moral life of the military]?”

It may take a while to find out. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” remains in effect until 60 days after the government certifies that the military is ready for implementation. The Pentagon said it does not know how long the certification process may take.

Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.