WASHINGTON -- The careers of many if not most military chaplains will end if the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy against open homosexual service is overturned, more than 40 retired military chaplains contend in an April 28 letter to President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The letter warned that reversing the policy will negatively impact religious freedom and could even affect military readiness and troop levels because the military would be marginalizing "deeply held" religious beliefs.
Military chaplains, the retired chaplains said, "are integral to maintaining high morale."
"Marginalizing a large group of chaplains, then, will unavoidably harm readiness by diminishing morale," the letter said. "Similarly, making orthodox Christians -- both chaplains and servicemen -- into second-class Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines whose sincerely held religious beliefs are comparable to racism cannot help recruitment or retention."
Obama and Gates have stated their support for overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but at least half of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have expressed reservations about its possible reversal, which would require action by Congress.
Changing the policy, the letter said, could influence everything in the chaplaincy, from what a chaplain can say in a sermon to what he can say in a counseling session. The retired chaplains, the letter said, are "deeply concerned" that the changes would threaten the religious liberty of chaplains and service members.
If the policy is changed, chaplains who don't conform would "run the risk of career-ending accusations of insubordination and discrimination," the letter said.
Keith Travis, team leader of the chaplaincy evangelism team at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, signed the letter. A former chaplain in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserves, he said the chaplaincy "as we know it today hangs in the balance."
"It's a critical juncture at this point for ministry and chaplaincy," Travis told Baptist Press. "There are secondary and tertiary effects if this policy is overturned that will take place that people are not thinking about and they don't even see at this point."
Travis added, "It could limit our chaplains on what they could preach. Can they even preach about sin? Can homosexuality be called sin?"
The letter was signed by retired chaplains from various denominational backgrounds, including Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans.
"Put most simply, if the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men," the letter said. "This forced choice must be faced, since orthodox Christianity -- which represents a significant percentage of religious belief in the armed forces -- does not affirm homosexual behavior."
The letter added, "By raising homosexual behavior to the same protected status as innate, innocuous characteristics like race and gender, the armed forces will cast the sincerely held religious beliefs of many chaplains and Service members as rank bigotry comparable to racism."
Chaplains under such a new policy might be pressured to water down their teachings or to avoid "key elements" of their faith and practice. Additionally, the letter said, chaplains who preach through entire books of the Bible would "inevitably present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral."
"Thus, while chaplains fulfill their duty to God to preach the doctrines of their faith, they would find themselves speaking words that are in unequivocal conflict with official policies," the letter said.
Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Christian legal organization Alliance Defense Fund, said at a press conference that a change in policy would create a "crisis of conscience" for chaplains and those they serve.
The letter by the retired chaplains said overturning the current policy could also impact:
-- chaplains who teach classes in moral leadership and ethics at armed forces bases and branch schools.
-- chaplains who lead the Army's Strong Bonds program, which is aimed at strengthening the marriages and families of service members. If Don't Ask, Don't Tell is overturned, the letter said, it is only a matter of time before homosexual couples request participation in the program, putting chaplains who deny such a request in danger of receiving a discrimination complaint.
-- chaplains' ability to counsel according to their beliefs.
"If chaplains answer such questions [during counseling sessions] according to the tenets of their faith, stating that homosexual relationships are sinful and harmful, then they run the risk of career-ending accusations of insubordination and discrimination," the letter said.
The retired chaplains say they are speaking out for active duty chaplains who "may risk accusations of insubordination or discrimination" if they were to raise the same concerns.
The retired chaplains said they are not saying chaplains should avoid ministering to homosexuals.
"To the contrary, we believe that God loves everyone, that He desires that everyone should hear and receive the Truth, and that He calls us to speak that Truth," the retired chaplains said. "But condoning conduct that God says is harmful and sinful would both violate chaplains’ religious calling and betray Service members relying on them for Godly counsel."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a former Marine, said people will leave the chaplaincy if the policy is changed.
"If chaplains are forced to counsel same-sex couples or are limited in the moral teachings that they can present," he said at a press conference, "you can look for orthodox Christian chaplains to exit the military, leaving an insurmountable void in the fostering and environment that ensures that the men and women who wear the uniform are in their best mental, emotional and spiritual condition necessary to defend the nation and the ideals that we represent."
In addition to Travis, David Mullis, a retired Navy Chaplain who also was commissioned by Southern Baptists, signed the letter.