The Senate failed to muster enough votes Tuesday to pass an annual military spending bill weighed down by an immigration provision and the repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy.
The bill was filibustered by Republicans and earned 56 votes, four short of the 60 Democrats needed to pass the bill. Earlier this month, a federal judge in California ruled that the policy was unconstitutional. The House passed its own repeal in May.
Leaders of all four military branches have asked lawmakers not to act until they finish conducting a survey of military personnel in December.
"I'm rejoicing" that the bill did not pass, said Paul Vicalvi, chaplains commission executive director for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). "It will spare a lot of grief."
While most debate has been over what happens in soldiers' close living conditions, that isn't the chaplains' biggest concern, according to Jan McCormack, director of chaplaincy and pastoral counseling at Denver Seminary.
"What I do worry about is what it might mean if a chaplain who had a viewpoint about homosexuality refused to counsel or work with somebody," she said.
If gay and lesbian soldiers receive protective status, McCormack said, how does that affect the expectations of the military's 3,000 active-duty chaplains? "What if a commander decides that I'm supposed to counsel by myself a lesbian female and I don't think I should? I just don't hear Congress thinking about that end of it."
But some denominations are. The Southern Baptist Convention, which has the most chaplains of any denomination at nearly 450, passed a resolution in June against the repeal of DADT, claiming that a large percentage of currently serving military personnel said they would not reenlist or would end their careers early should the policy be repealed.
The Presbyterian Church in America sent a letter to President Obama and military leaders in July, charging that chaplains might be reprimanded for preaching against homosexuality or refusing to marry homosexual couples.
Others are less concerned.
"I don't think much would happen to chaplains," said Doug Laycock, professor of law and religion at the University of Virginia and co-editor of Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. "The chaplain corps is a total anomaly in our system. We've got a government running a religious organization."
The system is necessary because servicemen and women are often in isolated places without access to their own religious organizations. Serving those men and women, even if they're of a different denomination or faith, is what a chaplain signs up to do, said Laycock, who has argued for "strong gay rights laws with strong religious exemptions.".
Chaplains "don't have the same free exercise rights as a pastor in the private sector," he said. "They sign up to minister to everybody."
Vicalvi said that while the policy's potential repeal concerned him, "I'm not going to say the sky is falling."
The NAE would not encourage any chaplain to resign if DADT is repealed, he said. "Chaplains have never been forced to counsel anybody, and a chaplain has always been given the freedom to do his calling according to the dictates of his faith, so I don't think you'll be compromising counseling."
Chaplains also won't be forced to marry homosexuals, he said. Like chaplains who feel they can't marry divorced couples, those who can't marry homosexual couples would be encouraged to find another chaplain to perform the ceremony, he said.
However, if a chaplain tells a gay couple that he believes their lifestyle is detrimental to them as human beings, he may be accused of discrimination, Vicalvi said. Chaplains also run marriage retreats for military personnel and their spouses, which could get complicated if a gay couple wanted to attend, he said.
Chaplains, unlike other military personnel, also answer to their sending churches, or endorsers. So if a chaplain tells his commander he's not allowed to counsel homosexuals, or marry them, most commanders would respect that, said Vicalvi. They're not looking for a war against the church.
"Chaplains have one foot in uniform and one foot still in the civilian church," he said. "If it became a real issue, our chaplains would get pulled out."
Vicalvi is relieved that the bill did not pass. "It's a miracle," he said. "God worked in the hearts of our leaders."
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.