Col. Timothy Wagoner has been an Air Force chaplain for 20 years, serving a denomination – the Southern Baptists – that rejects same-sex relationships.
Yet here he was at the chapel he oversees, watching supportively as an airman and his male partner celebrated a civil union ceremony.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Wagoner said at the McGuire Air Force Base chapel, days later. “I don’t feel I’m compromising my beliefs ... I’m supporting the community.”
Wagoner didn’t officiate at the ceremony, but his very presence at the gathering was a marker of how things have changed for active-duty clergy in the nine months since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed and gays could serve openly.
Before repeal, various conservative groups and individuals – including many conservative retired chaplains – warned that repeal would trigger an exodus of chaplains whose faiths consider homosexual activity sinful. In fact, there’s been no significant exodus – perhaps two or three departures of active-duty chaplains linked to the repeal. Moreover, chaplains or their civilian coordinators from a range of conservative faiths told The Associated Press they knew of virtually no serious problems thus far involving infringement of chaplains’ religious freedom or rights of conscience.
“To say the dust has settled would be premature,” said Air Force Col. Gary Linsky, a Roman Catholic priest who oversees 50 fellow chaplains in the Air Mobility Command. “But I’ve received no complaints from chaplains raising concerns that their ministries were in any way conflicted or constrained.”
Wagoner, who commands five other chaplains at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey, said the chaplaincy corps was responding professionally and collegially to what he called a “balancing act” precipitated by the repeal.
“We’re good at this stuff – we want to take care of our folks,” he said. “We have to respect the faith requirements of the chaplain and we have to take care of the needs of the airman.”
That attitude meshes with the official Pentagon guidelines on the repeal: “The Chaplain Corps’ First Amendment freedoms and their duty to care for all have not changed. All service members will continue to serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs, and they will be expected to treat everyone with respect.”
Wagoner would not have been willing to officiate at the June 23 civil union ceremony at the McGuire chapel, nor would his Catholic or Mormon colleagues. But he had no problem with another member of his team, Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, doing so.
Reeb, who will be will leaving the Navy in a few weeks after 20 years as a chaplain, held a couple of pre-ceremony consultations with the couple – Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali and civilian Will Behrens – and was impressed by their commitment to one another.
On hand at the chapel were the couple’s family and friends, several gay-rights activists, and Sgt. Elizabeth Garcia, the chaplain’s assistant who handled logistical arrangements. And then there was Wagoner, whose denomination preaches that homosexuality is sinful and is “not a valid alternative lifestyle.”
“As a Southern Baptist, why was I here? I was here to lend support,” Wagoner said. “I was here supporting Airman Umali. I’ve worked with him. He’s a comrade in arms.”
“I’m also supporting Chaplain Reeb,” he said. “She gave a beautiful ceremony.”
According to the latest Pentagon figures, there are about 2,930 chaplains on active duty, most from theologically conservative faiths and organizations. The Southern Baptist Convention has the largest contingent, with about 450 active-duty chaplains; the Roman Catholic Church is next with about 220.
The Catholic official who oversees those chaplains, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, had vehemently opposed repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and issued a statement after repeal conveying ongoing concerns “in this difficult time.”
“This archdiocese remains resolved in the belief that no Catholic chaplain will ever be compelled to condone – even silently – homosexual behavior,” he said then.
However, Broglio said he was unaware of any major repeal-related problems that had arisen for his chaplains during the first nine months of the new era.
“There have been no overt difficulties,” he said. “It’s more a question of what might occur in the future.”
Broglio remains concerned that Catholic chaplains might somehow be pressured to participate in or facilitate ceremonies or programs that bestow recognition and approval on same-sex couples _ “As time goes by, it will be a challenge, to make certain you’re not silently condoning.”
As for preaching the Catholic doctrine that homosexual behavior is a sin, Broglio said he expects chaplains to retain the freedom to do so as part of their religious services. But he said there is confusion as to whether that freedom extends to other settings where chaplains might face pressure to deliver inclusive messages.
Broglio said he has not given his chaplains specific instructions to either emphasize church teaching on homosexuality in their preaching or to avoid the subject.
He concurred with the estimates that only a handful of chaplains have left the military because of the repeal. He said “two or three” Catholic chaplains had resigned their commissions in recent months, and guessed that repeal may have been a factor though they didn’t cite that specifically.
Another conservative denomination with a large contingent of chaplains – 114 on active duty – is the Assemblies of God.
Scott McChrystal, a retired Army chaplain who oversees them, said the concerns that preceded repeal had not been borne out.
“Since the actual repeal, I cannot recall a single instance where I’ve gotten a call from one of our chaplains who’s had a problem,” he said. “Our goal as an organization is simply to provide as much help as we can to anybody we can.”
Likewise, Frank Clawson, director of military relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said none of the 42 active-duty Mormon chaplains with whom he works has reported problems linked to the repeal or expressed a desire to leave the service.
Yet Clawson remains wary that the military could become increasingly inhospitable to religious conservatives.
“I don’t know if the vote is in yet,” he said. “The pendulum has swung the other way, to where if you do have a faith, you’re almost looked down on.”
The loudest assertions that conservative chaplains face problems come from outside the active-duty ranks, notably from a coalition of retired chaplains and other religious leaders called the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. In a letter to a Republican congressman in March, the alliance contended that repeal has been implemented “with an open and palpable hostility” to chaplains and service members who disapprove of homosexuality.
The alliance supports a measure backed by House Republicans that would ban the use of military chapels for same-sex weddings and other similar ceremonies. The Pentagon says it will allow such ceremonies when in accordance with state law.
The alliance’s executive director, retired Army chaplain Ron Crews, says some active-duty chaplains are dismayed by repeal-related changes but don’t speak out publicly because they fear retaliation or do not get permission from superiors.
However, Crews agreed that few chaplains have left the military because of the repeal.
“We’ve been encouraging our chaplains to stay the course – we don’t want to see an exodus,” Crews said. “Some of my chaplains have stated they are going to stay, but they realize there may come a day where they may have to choose obedience to God or their career, and they’re going to choose their obedience to God.”
With an eye toward the future, when the military community is likely to include more same-sex couples, Crews’ alliance has drawn some lines in the sand for chaplains from its affiliated denominations: no role in any ceremony for same-sex couples, no jointly presiding over religious services with gay or lesbian chaplains, no pre-marriage or marriage-strengthening counseling to same-sex couples.
Wagoner suggested there were “no hard answers” to some potential dilemmas, such as if a conservative chaplain objected to participating at a marriage retreat that included a same-sex couple. Perhaps a substitute chaplain could be found, or perhaps the gay couple could pick another date for a retreat, Wagoner said.
“Think of it as an experiment,” Wagoner said of the post-repeal era. “It’s evolving.”
The chaplain coordinators for some relatively liberal denominations suggested that the Chaplain Alliance and its allies are exaggerating the impact of repeal for political purposes.
“They are grasping at straws, in terms of getting something substantial to counteract the repeal,” said the Rev. Stephen Boyd of the United Church of Christ, which has about 18 active-duty chaplains and was an early supporter of same-sex marriage.
Bishop James Magness, the coordinator for about 75 active-duty and reserve Episcopal chaplains, said he’d heard a common, positive verdict about repeal from his more conservative Catholic, Mormon and Southern Baptist colleagues.
“The whole argument about religious liberty is so incredibly uninformed, and inflamed by some of the very conservative legal groups,” Magness said. “In reality, there’s been very little if any of the services forcing any ministerial activity on a chaplain against his or her will.”
Chaplain Linsky said he’d respect any chaplain who did leave the military out of principled objections related to the repeal, but knew of no such instances thus far.
“The chaplain corps,” he said, “has navigated this issue with great calm and prudence.”