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Military Chaplains Raise Gay Marriage Concerns


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin.

On the same day that President Obama announced that he's had a change of heart and now publicly supports same-sex marriage, there were quieter moves on Capitol Hill to protect the rights of some who do not.

On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee passed its version of a bill designed, in part, to protect military chaplains from coming under pressure to marry service members of the same sex.

This latest move, which could face strong opposition in the Senate, comes as a response to concerns expressed by chaplains that their own beliefs are being compromised.

Joining me in the studio to discuss the issue further is retired Army Chaplain Douglas E. Lee, He belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America and is a spokesperson for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

Mr. Lee, thanks so much for coming in.

DOUGLAS E. LEE: Great to be here. Thank you for asking.

MARTIN: So first, we should start off by saying that it's really the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" last year that brought this issue to the fore. That was the policy banning gays serving openly in the military. Now they can serve openly. What has been the impact on chaplains? What has that meant for the chaplaincy?

LEE: Here's the way I describe it. Chaplains can continue to serve their faith group with freedom and boldness and under the First Amendment, which is good. But there are things bubbling behind the scenes and at lower levels that often are not noticed by the community and by America and by leaders in the military.

MARTIN: Because when the debate was happening, it was really the chaplains that raised a lot of concerns about what repeal would mean for them.

LEE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Can you reiterate, what were those concerns?

LEE: Well, you might know or recall - and not just chaplains, but other organizations across the country began to equate the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" with consequential religious liberty issues along the way, that were this particular behavior to be recognized in the military that way, that there would eventually be challenges to what chaplains could or could not say in their ministry.

MARTIN: In frank terms, we're talking about chaplains being put in a position where they would feel that they couldn't express their concern...

LEE: Correct.

MARTIN: ...that homosexuality is a sin.

LEE: Correct. And you have to understand that the majority of the denominations and faith groups that are in the military, you know, from orthodox Jews, Muslims, Greek orthodox, Russian orthodox, majority of Protestants, Roman Catholic Church, I mean they're all from traditions that hold that homosexuality is a sin. And so the question is then, well, will chaplains continue to be able to speak that way?

MARTIN: So we heard the president come out last week and express his personal opinion about same-sex marriage. But this is far from policy. The Pentagon has come out and said that when it comes to chaplains, they're not required to marry same-sex couples.

LEE: That is true.

MARTIN: So what are the concerns among...

LEE: Well, the concern of some of the congressmen, there are quite a few senators and congressmen that are thinking about this and that's part of the reason some of these bills have come before the committees this last week and so on. And so Congress is the only group that can help make sure that liberty remains out there.

The military just responds to the civilian authorities. And so they salute. They say - someone tells them what the policy is from on high, and they salute and say we'll implement it, and that's what happened here.

MARTIN: Doug Lee is a retired Army Chaplain and member of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. He joined is in our studio in Washington.

Thanks so much for coming in.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.