By Bob Allen
The head of a group that supports atheists and freethinkers in the military says new guidelines banning Southern Baptist chaplains from leading or attending wedding ceremonies for gay service members will prevent chaplains from performing many of their military duties.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board released guidelines last week stating that chaplains endorsed by NAMB “will not conduct or attend a wedding ceremony for any same-sex couple, bless such a union or perform counseling in support of such a union, assist or support paid contractors or volunteers leading same-sex relational events, nor offer any kind of relationship training or retreat, on or off of a military installation, that would give the appearance of accepting the homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing.”
The guidelines, updated in response to the military’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolishment of the Defense of Marriage Act, further prevent Southern Baptist chaplains 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.”
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said the directive violates military regulations that chaplains must support the free exercise of religion by all members of the military and their families and not just those within their own faith tradition.
Torpy, who also is part of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, a group that advocates a military chaplaincy corps that is demographically consistent with the population at large, said while Southern Baptists did not directly withdraw from chaplaincy, their new policy “reads, essentially, that their chaplains are prohibited from engaging in programs or working with anyone who supports homosexuality or in providing counseling that does not label homosexuality shameful.”
“The new policy of the SBC says chaplains must refuse service to certain military personnel and their legally recognized family members,” Torpy said. “Being now in conflict with the military chaplaincy regulation, the SBC and its chaplains seem to be in violation of the regulation.”
The new guidelines require chaplains to minister in harmony with Article XVIII of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which describes marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.” They remind SBC chaplains that “responsible pastoral care will seek to offer repentance and forgiveness, help and healing and restoration” for the sexually immoral.
“We are confident that our chaplains are already conducting their ministries with sound doctrine and in accordance to Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” Doug Carver, a retired Army major general who leads NAMB’s chaplaincy efforts,” told Baptist Press. “These guidelines simply provide clarification on specific issues and give our chaplains the freedom and protection for their ministry.”
The new guidelines formalize what NAMB leaders told chaplains in a 2012 memo after an Associated Press article was published about a 20-year Air Force chaplain who attended a same-sex wedding performed on his base.
Col. Timothy Wagoner initially assured his NAMB superiors that comments attributed to him in the story were misunderstood. Later he resigned his SBC endorsement and was re-endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Southern Baptists have 1,434 endorsed chaplains serving in the U.S. military, more than any other denomination or faith group. While Southern Baptists make up 1 percent of the military, they account for 16 percent of active-duty chaplains, according to Defense Department statistics reported by the media in 2011.
Recently, Southern Baptist leaders met with more than 50 senior military chaplains in a conference call about what to do if they are asked to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or if they are disciplined for quoting Bible verses that condemn homosexuality.
“Those of you serving in the military are at the front wave of what we are eventually going to be facing all over this country,” Russell Moore, new head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told the chaplains. “You are going to be dealing with some things that every community in the United States will be dealing with in a few short years.”
Earlier this year Moore joined NAMB President Kevin Ezell in a statement of concern about the religious liberty of military chaplains, including ambiguity about the military’s distinction between “evangelism,” which is not forbidden in the military code of conduct, and “proselytizing,” the unwelcome coercion of religious belief, which is banned.
Others say such concerns are overblown. They accuse conservative groups like the Family Research Council of “crying wolf,” claiming that no chaplain has been, or will ever be, required to conduct a same-gender wedding if it violates his or her religious beliefs. (Southern Baptists ceased endorsing women as military chaplains in 2004.)
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Ron Crews, who now serves as executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, however, said the new NAMB guidelines will give cover to chaplains who may be pressured to compromise their beliefs.
“Their chaplains can take them to their commanders and supervisory chaplains to say this isn’t just me,” Crews told OneNewsNow, a Christian news service associated with the American Family Association. “This is my denomination. This is the faith stance from which we come.”
SBC chaplains won’t perform gay weddings – Associated Baptist Press