Senators passed the legislation Nov. 30 by voice vote as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill, according to the Army Times. The Senate version of the measure differs from that approved by the House of Representatives. In July, the House voted 236-184 for an amendment to its Defense authorization bill that would prohibit the performance of homosexual "marriage" ceremonies by military chaplains and at military installations.
The Department of Defense (DOD) announced in September that private, gay "weddings" could be conducted on or off military bases by military chaplains if such ceremonies are recognized within the state. In its guidance, the Pentagon also said a chaplain would not be forced to participate in a private ceremony if doing so would conflict with his or her "religion or personal beliefs."
If enacted, a law would provide more long-lasting protection for chaplains' conscience rights than a DOD regulation with similar language. Typically, new administrations can change a federal regulation more easily than a new Congress can reverse a law.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss., the amendment's sponsor, said it is needed to guarantee chaplains' rights are protected. "This amendment will allow the chaplains of our Armed Forces to maintain the freedom of conscience necessary to serve both their Nation and their religion without conflict," Wicker said in a written statement.
Chaplain endorsers agreed and commended Wicker. "Chaplains should be able to continue to serve our military personnel without fear of reprisal for their Biblically held views concerning sexuality and the definition of marriage," said Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, in a written release.
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, which consists of more than 2,000 largely evangelical Christian military chaplains, has said its members will not perform gay "weddings." The Roman Catholic Archdiocese for Military Service also has said its members will not officiate at such ceremonies.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land called in October for Congress and President Obama to overturn the new DOD gay "marriage" policy. The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) also joined the Chaplain Alliance in seeking enactment of a right of conscience clause in the military code of law to protect chaplains' religious freedom.
Wicker's amendment does not cite same-sex "marriage" but takes a broader approach that would include such a conflict with conscience. It says a chaplain "who, as a matter of conscience or moral principle, does not wish to perform a marriage may not be required to do so."
Land and other critics said the DOD's new rule violates the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 act that defines marriage in federal law as only between a man and a woman.
The DOD announced its policy in September for chaplains and base facilities only 10 days after the ban on open homosexuality in the military was officially lifted. That prohibition -- adopted in 1993 and known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- barred homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibited military commanders from asking service members if they are homosexual.
The ERLC and other opponents of rescinding Don't Ask, Don't Tell have warned its repeal will result in infringements on the religious liberty of chaplains and other military personnel, as well as harm to the readiness, privacy and retention of service members.
The Chaplain Alliance reiterated Dec. 1 its call for congressional hearings about what it described as threats to religious freedom in the wake of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
"We are aware of instances where chaplains have suffered retaliation, including having their careers threatened, for being 'politically incorrect,'" Crews said in the statement. "Enlisted personnel have also experienced a chilling effect on their free speech rights."
The Department of Justice announced this year it would no longer defend DOMA against legal challenges. The House, controlled by Republicans, has chosen to argue in court on behalf of the law.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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