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Baptist chaplaincy rules called consistent with military policy

NASHVILLE (BP) — New guidelines from the North American Mission Board prohibiting Southern Baptist military chaplains from officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies and counseling same-sex couples reflect the Southern Baptist Convention’s most basic understanding of separation of church and state, Russell D. Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in an online video dialogue Sept. 19.

Moore’s dialogue with Andrew Walker, the ERLC’s director of policy studies, came after several former military chaplains and a group of atheists criticized the new guidelines. Some said SBC chaplains should resign because they would be unable to fulfill their duties among all service members.

Moore, however, noted, “We have liberal Baptist groups who for many, many years have talked about religious liberty and separation of church and state now saying we need an established religion that says the sexual revolution is now codified and the government ought to enforce it.

“What essentially is happening is we’re calling for the separation of church and state, to be able to say chaplaincy isn’t a subset of the military,” Moore said in the dialogue posted at the ERLC website. “Instead, what the military is doing — having chaplains — is to enable people in the military to freely exercise their religion. It is not just a post of some kind of American civil religion. That is why we don’t just have a vague, generic, least-common-denominator chaplain.”

It is also why Mormons, Buddhists, Catholics, Jews and Muslims have military chaplains, Moore said.

In addition to prohibiting participation in same-sex marriage ceremonies and counseling same-sex couples, NAMB guidelines now include explicit statements that Southern Baptist chaplains will practice ministry in light of the biblical definition of marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime,” as described in the SBC Baptist Faith and Message.

The guidelines also state that Southern Baptists view all sexual immorality as sin that violates God’s biblical standards for purity and that “responsible pastoral care will seek to offer repentance and forgiveness, help and healing, and restoration through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial gift of love on the cross.”

Finally, Southern Baptist military chaplains are prohibited from participating in jointly-led worship services “with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices a homosexual lifestyle or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct.”

NAMB guidelines acknowledge that Southern Baptist chaplains serve in a pluralistic setting but expect, under U.S. Department of Defense guidelines, that the rights and freedoms of chaplains will be protected so they may “preach, teach and counsel in accordance with the tenets of their denominational faith group and their own religious conscience” while treating all others with dignity, respect and Christ-like love.

(For the Baptist Press story Aug. 30, “NAMB guidelines for military chaplains updated to address same-sex unions,” click here.)

Walker said in the video dialog that NAMB found it necessary to offer a more precise statement of its chaplaincy guidelines in a “post-DOMA” world created by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June.

“We’re very concerned about our chaplains offering a proper witness — a Christ-like witness — that respects all individuals in the military but also holds firm to Southern Baptist doctrine,” Walker said.

Walker also said there is “nothing condemning about the regulations.” But not everyone agrees.

Critics of NAMB’s policy change argue that the new regulations will force Southern Baptist chaplains into indefensible positions with military leaders and into violating their pledges to serve in a pluralistic and multi-cultural environment.

On Sept. 16, Tom Carpenter, co-founder of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy and an elder with the Presbyterian Church (USA), wrote in an opinion editorial carried by Associated Baptist Press that the NAMB regulations would force Southern Baptist chaplains to choose between “God or country.”

“Given that choice, as men (NAMB forbids women to serve as ordained chaplains) of God the only honorable course of action for most will be to resign their commissions and return to civilian ministry,” Carpenter wrote. He also encouraged SBC chaplains to seek the endorsement of “another denomination or faith group, one that truly endorses inclusion, collegiality and pluralism.”

On Sept. 23, ABP published another commentary from former military chaplains Paul Dodd and Herman Keizer Jr. Dodd served 31 years as a chaplain and also is co-chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy. Keizer currently is co-director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University.

Dodd and Keizer argue that faith communities can establish doctrines related to homosexual activity, and “while these faith communities are expected to endorse fully qualified chaplains who share their beliefs, these communities have also accepted the mandate that all chaplains must be able to work within the pluralistic and multicultural environment of the military.”

“Attitudes of religious hostility, which erect walls rather than build bridges, are incompatible with those pledges,” the two former chaplains wrote.

A group calling itself Military Atheists and Freethinkers also issued a statement that the NAMB guidelines place military chaplains in a “Catch-22” situation.

“They must defy military regulations and their duties or defy their denomination. They must either work with and for all service members without discrimination based on sexual orientation — or — they must avoid all cooperation even with those who affirm gays and lesbians,” the group said.

That understanding of military chaplaincy, however, is inconsistent with Defense Department regulations and the guidelines issued for military chaplains from NAMB.

When the Department of Defense officially ended its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuals serving in the military in September 2011, Under Secretary of Defense Clifford Stanley issued guidelines allowing military chaplains to perform same-sex marriages.

Stanley wrote that chaplains could participate in or officiate private ceremonies, on and off military bases, “provided that the ceremony is not prohibited by applicable state and local law.” At the time, DOMA was still a part of federal law.

Importantly, the memorandum confirmed existing Defense Department doctrine on the duty of chaplains to either perform religious services or accommodate religious exercise through other means.

“Further, a chaplain is not required to participate in or officiate a private ceremony if so doing would be in variance with the tenets of his or her religion and personal beliefs,” Stanley wrote in the memo in 2011.

Gary Pollitt, a spokesman for the Military Chaplains Association, told ABC News in 2011 that military chaplains conduct “religious ceremonies and rites in keeping with the canon [or beliefs, doctrines, practices] of the religious group that endorses the chaplain. Each faith group defines the parameters for religious rites and the clergyman’s individual discretion [if any] with those rites.”

The statements from Stanley and Pollitt are brief descriptions of still-existing policy within the military. In the Army’s manual on religious support (FM1-05), for instance, chaplains are said to be protected under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

“As credentialed religious leaders, who are themselves guaranteed the free exercise of religion, chaplains cannot perform religious support contrary to their faith tradition, tenets, and beliefs,” the manual reads.

Army Regulation 165-1 notes that chaplains, while performing their duties of facilitating free exercise of religion and religious services, “remain fully accountable to the code of ethics and ecclesiastical standards of their endorsing faith group. In some instances, this may restrict Chaplain participation in a command event, but it does not relieve the Chaplain from providing adequate religious support to accomplish the mission.”

The regulation also states, “Chaplains will not be required to perform a religious role (such as offering a prayer, reading, dedication, or blessing) in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets of practices of their faith. Chaplains will make every effort to provide for required ministrations which they cannot personally perform.”

Gen. (Ret.) Doug Carver, executive director of chaplain services for NAMB and a former chief of chaplains for the Army, told Baptist Press in a statement that he was grateful “for the leadership and partnership Russell Moore and the ERLC has provided as we help our chaplains navigate these issues.”

“We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our chaplains regarding the guidelines,” Carver said. “We’ve also heard from other denominations who have asked if they can use portions or all of our guidelines as they develop similar policies for their chaplains regarding ministry and same-gender relationships.”

Southern Baptists are not the first denomination to indicate its military chaplains would not be allowed to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies. After “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in 2011, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, head of the Catholic Archdiocese for Military Services, said Roman Catholics, in accordance with church doctrine, would not perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Greg Tomlin is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Gregory Tomlin