March 25th, 2011
06:08 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
The U.S. Army is getting to the hard work of training chaplains as it begins to implement the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which for years required gay and lesbian service members stay quiet about their sexual orientation.
For the past month the Army chaplain corps has been training its 2,900 members on what the policy changes will mean for them. The training stresses that not much will be different for chaplains, but that those who cannot "reconcile" the change in policy are able to seek a voluntary separation from the service.
During a comprehensive review process last year amid the debate over whether to overturn "don't ask, don't tell," the military sought input from denominational groups and chaplains. The responses they received led to concern that if the policy was overturned it might cause chaplains to leave the service or that denominational groups might pull their chaplains.
A chaplain must be endorsed by a religious group to serve in the armed forces. Withdrawing that endorsement would force a chaplain to leave the service.
For some religious groups the change in policy posed a doctrinal problem. In a religious group where sex is sanctioned only between a married man and a woman, homosexuality can be considered a sin. Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical Christian groups raised the most concerns.
But "at this time no endorser has said they're going to withdraw their endorsement and pull all their chaplains," Lt. Col. Carlton Birch, a spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains office, told CNN.
"Chaplains have always been trained to treat all soldiers with dignity and respect," he said.
"There's no change for the chaplain corps. We'll continue representing our endorsing groups and balance that with our role as officers and soldiers serving all," he continued. "Both counseling and worship are voluntary in the military so soldiers are not going to be put in a situation where chaplains are forcing their personal beliefs against a soldier's will."
The Army has long history of chaplains serving alongside troops: The chaplaincy corps in the Army has been in place for well over 200 years. They have long had to balance the Constitution's establishment clause, which says the government will make no laws regarding the establishment of religion, with the freedom of religion for both soldiers and chaplains.
"Military chaplains are a little bit of an anomaly," Birch said. "Representing our faith group faithfully and being soldiers full time, some people ask, 'How can you do both?' Sometimes I think of it as a demilitarized zone. You've got church on one side and state on the other. We live in the middle of that. Anytime you pop your head up you get shot at from both sides."
The training seems to address concerns from both sides. A slide show of the training provided to CNN by the Army says, "In the context of their religious ministry, chaplains are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious belief."
Birch said the training stresses chaplains will not be asked to change their beliefs on homosexuality. "Chaplains will be able to continue to preach and teach according to the dictates of their faith," he said.
"I've been going to military chapels for almost 24 years now since I've been a soldier in the United States Army. I've never once heard a sermon on homosexuality," Birch noted.
Episcopal Bishop James Magness, who heads that church's endorsement of chaplains for all branches of the military, told CNN that "to my knowledge, none of my clergy are pushing against this, at least none have told me."
"It's a welcome thing, actually, for the entire lifting and repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' I'm fully aware, having served a career as a Navy chaplain, that there are some who are unsettled about it, some who are unhappy about it, and some who are downright angry about it," he said.
While saying, "I don't wish anyone to leave," Magness added, "If a person can't reconcile themselves to the new policies of DADT it probably wouldn't be a bad thing for them to leave."
He acknowledged that "it's a delicate balance."
"My counterparts in conservative denominations aren't seeing a rush of people looking to leave the service over this. They haven't seen a rush to find the exit door in the military," Magness said.
Mike Ebert has not seen a rush for the doors either. He is the spokesman for North American Mission Board, the domestic mission board for the Southern Baptist Conference, a denomination that opposed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and endorses 1,200 chaplains across the military.
"We have not heard from a lot of chaplains that they're leaving and we really don't expect that," he said.
"Most of our chaplains feel like this is God's calling on their lives right now. They're not going to walk away from that because of a policy change," Ebert continued. "They're already used to working in a diverse workplace and ministering to all faith groups."
Ebert said the Defense Department has assured his denomination chaplains will be able to continue preaching as they see fit. "We're in a mode where we're listening and watching. We do have concerns where there is a setting where one of our chaplains has to give the full counsel of scripture and it is offensive to someone. What will that case be? We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
But he added, "I think it's a so-far-so-good situation. Even though we think homosexuality is not God's best in terms of human sexuality, in terms of the repeal of this policy it's been so far, so good."
Birch, the Army chaplains office spokesman, said that before the training began, one chaplain did ask for a voluntary separation because of the change in the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
But he added, "Since we began this training with our over 2,900 chaplains in the active, guard and reserves, no chaplains have made the decision to go forward with a voluntary separation."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.