Military chaplains ask Obama to honor conscience protections

By Michelle Bauman

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Ron Crews, Executive Director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

A group of concerned chaplains is calling on the Obama administration to honor legislation approved by Congress to protect conscience rights in the military.

“Chaplains should be able to stand by their faith traditions and honor their commitment to God’s Word,” said Chaplain Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

In a Jan. 3 statement, the alliance asked President Barack Obama and the Department of Defense to honor section 533 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by Congress with strong bipartisan support.

The section offers legal protection for military chaplains by preventing them from being forced “to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to (their) conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs.” It also prevents discrimination or the “denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment” based on a chaplain’s refusal to perform such ceremonies.

The provision was intended to secure the conscience rights of chaplains, particularly under the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a former law that had prevented homosexual individuals from serving openly in the military.

After the announcement that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would be repealed, the Pentagon issued new directives in September 2011 allowing military chaplains to perform same-sex weddings at military facilities, but did not require them to do so if they objected.

Section 533 of the National Defense Authorization Act now puts the Pentagon’s conscience guideline into law.

However, upon singing the legislation, Obama issued a statement calling the conscience provision “unnecessary and ill-advised.”

He argued that the military already has appropriate conscience protections in place and said that his Secretary of Defense “will ensure that the implementing regulations do not permit or condone discriminatory actions.”

The president reiterated his commitment to continuing to implement the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and assured the nation that the new legislation “will not alter that.”

Although the conscience protections became federal law when Obama signed the authorization act, religious liberty advocates are concerned that they may not be enforced. In 2011, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, saying that he believed the law was unconstitutional. 

Crews explained that “(s)everal chaplains have already been faced with requests from same-sex couples to have ceremonies in military chapels.”

The Chaplain Alliance has recorded numerous accounts of military chaplains being threatened or punished for expressing the view that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

“The purpose of these provisions is simply to protect the religious liberties of military chaplains who hold to Biblical views concerning sexuality,” Crews said, adding that “(e)very member of our armed forces should be able to serve without surrendering their beliefs.”

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