WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy entity is calling for senators to defeat legislation this week that would overturn bans on open homosexuals serving in the armed forces and abortions in military facilities.
The Senate is expected to hold a cloture vote Tuesday to bring the annual Department of Defense authorization bill — which includes the contentious proposals — to the floor for consideration. A successful cloture vote, which requires 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber, would prevent a delaying tactic known as a filibuster that has been threatened by some senators opposed to overturning the military policies.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), urged Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his party to oppose the bill and “to support a filibuster if necessary, unless these provisions on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and abortion are removed.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — which was enacted in 1993 — prevents homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibits military commanders from asking service members if they are homosexual or about their “sexual orientation.”
The ERLC sent an alert to its constituents Sept. 20 encouraging them to ask their senators to oppose the legislation. (The capitol switchboard number is 202-224-3121.)
In other developments in the effort to rescind “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:”
— An Army deputy chief of staff in charge of personnel matters recently criticized service members who oppose rescinding the ban on homosexuals and said they should leave the military if they cannot support the change. The Washington Times reported Sept. 16 that Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick told troops in August at European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, “Unfortunately, we have a minority of service members who are still racists and bigoted and you will never be able to get rid of them. But these people opposing this new policy will need to get with the program, and if they can’t, they need to get out. No matter how much training and education of those in opposition, you’re always going to have those that oppose this on moral and religious grounds just like you still have racists today.”
— An additional 25 military chaplains signed onto a letter expressing religious freedom concerns regarding a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The letter to President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, first sent in April, now has 66 signers, it was announced Sept. 17. The signers are from all four military branches and have nearly 1,700 years of combined service. In their letter, they say, “By raising homosexual behavior to the same protected class as innate, innocuous characteristics like race and gender, the armed forces will cast the sincerely held religious beliefs of many chaplains and Service members as rank bigotry comparable to racism.” Southern Baptist chaplains were among those who signed the letter.
Bostick’s comments undoubtedly will serve to confirm the concerns expressed by the chaplains and others that repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will curtail the religious liberty of those whose opposition to homosexual conduct is based on the Bible.
Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” also oppose repeal because they say it will undermine military readiness, cohesion, privacy, recruitment and retention.
Land told McConnell in a Sept. 16 letter, “The admission of openly homosexual individuals into the military would engender sexual tension and thereby negatively impact troop morale, unit cohesion and order. We are also gravely concerned that repeal would result in the resignation of large numbers of personnel who are currently serving in our all-volunteer services, and that it will be extremely difficult to recruit their replacements.”
The other Defense authorization amendment opposed by the ERLC would eliminate a restriction on elective, privately funded abortions in military health care facilities that has been in place for the last 14 years. The proposal would not affect the ban that exists on publicly funded abortions at armed services hospitals.
“Our taxpayer-funded military hospitals should be centers to help restore sick and injured troops, not to take the lives of our servicewomen’s unborn children,” Land wrote.
He also said the amendment would cause moral conflict for pro-life, military physicians and discourage doctors who oppose performing abortions from joining the armed services.
In his letter to McConnell, Land said the ERLC believes Congress should authorize the support necessary to aid U.S. troops and regrets it cannot endorse the overall bill because of the “troublesome social measures” included.
Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., expressed his disdain for the amendments in Sept. 16 remarks on the Senate floor. “I regret to see that the long-respected, revered Senate Armed Services Committee has evolved into now being a forum for a social agenda of the liberal left for the United States Senate.”
The Armed Services Committee forwarded a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” to the full Senate in a 16-12 vote in May.
The House approved repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t’ Tell” on the same day in a 234-194 vote. House members later passed the overall Defense authorization legislation in a 229-186 roll call.
The House and Senate actions in May came only three days after the White House and congressional leaders reached an agreement on a way to enact repeal of the ban. Under the agreement and subsequent legislation, repeal would not go into effect until the Pentagon has finished a study of the issue Dec. 1. The agreement requires that President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen sign off on repeal of the policy. All three are on record in support of repeal.
Gates implemented a comprehensive review of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in March. As part of the study, the Pentagon is eliciting feedback from military personnel and their families. Gates said in April he believes “in the strongest possible terms” that the review should be complete prior to any legislative action. Mullen and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines also said Congress should not act until the review of the current policy has been completed. All four chiefs are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In his Sept. 16 floor speech, McCain — responding to Democratic leaders who have argued the bill won’t overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” until Obama, Gates and Mullen certify a repeal — said, “This is a legislative gimmick and a distinction without a difference. In reality, the majority is sending the signal to our men and women in uniform that we will not wait to hear their views or give them any due consideration once the Pentagon survey is finished. Instead, the Senate will turn its responsibility to legislate on this important matter over to three officials who have already publicly stated their support for repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. It is a blatant message of disrespect to our men and women in uniform that Congress is unwilling to even wait to hear what the force has to say on this important matter.”
Obama promised during the 2008 election campaign to overturn the ban. During his State of the Union speech in January, the president said he would work for repeal this year.
The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the amendment repealing the abortion ban in a 15-12 vote. The House version of the Defense authorization bill does not include the repeal of the ban. If the legislation eventually passed by the Senate includes the provision, its fate in the final version would be negotiated in a conference committee of members of both houses.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press, contributed to this article.