Military Chaplains Facing New Kind of Fire

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Chaplains have been a key part of the U.S. military for hundreds of years, even before American won independence from Great Britain.

Their ministries follow the call of duty and their church is often a battlefield.

But now many Christian chaplains fear the recent acceptance of homosexuality may silence their biblically held beliefs.

Filmmakers Lee Lawrence and Terry Nickelson spent three months with chaplains serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, producing a documentary titled, "Chaplains Under Fire."

"Military chaplains are dealing with people in extremes," Lawrence told CBN News. "They're in life, death situations -- not once, not twice, but very often every day." 

A Brutal Reality

The film offers a brutal, unflinching look at that reality.

"We show men and women who are in a lot of pain," Nickelson said. "We show the stress of combat missions, the stress of losing buddies."

"We spend a lot of time with casualties," he added. "And we show how the chaplains provide a variety of services for them during those times."

As the film documents, chaplains minister to troops on the battlefield, greet wounded warriors at each stop on their journey to recovery, and conduct memorial services for troops lost in battle.

Chaplains take on many roles, but their official job is to help the men and women assigned to them practice their constitutional right to worship freely.

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

"Chaplains Under Fire" doesn't address the controversy of homosexuals serving openly in the military, but many chaplains are concerned about the policy's repeal.

"We're doing away with one 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," retired Army Chaplain Ron Crews told CBN News. "But we're going to have another 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy."

"And it is: if I hold biblical values concerning homosexuality, don't ask me about them because if you ask me about them, I'm going to have to tell you," Crews said.

Now that a court has ruled the military must end its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the military is changing course.

Chaplains of faiths that view homosexuality as a sin are waiting to see if the repeal causes a conflict between their jobs and their beliefs.

"This is unique in American history where you have military policy at odds with the belief system of the chaplains that they rely on," said Jordan Lorence, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund.

Crews served as an Army chaplain for 28 years and now endorses other chaplains. He said there are more questions than answers from the Department of Defense on the matter.

"In this new environment, will a chaplain be able to pull out a Bible and read Scripture to a person he's counseling about sexual issues? We're concerned about that."

Ministry Opportunity?

But other chaplains say they're not worried. Col. Matthew Goff is an active duty chaplain, a job he's held for nearly 20 years.

He told CBN News he's never felt pressure to violate his conscience.

Instead he said he sees the repeal as an opportunity "to minister to, not only all the other soldiers that are staying in, of course, but the homosexuals that do join the military."

"They need the touch of Jesus just like anybody else," he said.

"So to stay there to be able to minister to them when they have needs and crisis and God opens the door to their hearts, it's good to be able to be there to do that," Goff said.

According to the Army:

"Chaplains will continue to have freedom to practice their religion according to the tenets of their faith.... Chaplains are not required to take actions that are inconsistent with their religious beliefs such as altering the content of sermons or religious counseling....or modifying forms of prayer or worship."

Signs of Persecution

But Crews says there is already evidence to the contrary.

During a briefing on the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he said one of the chaplains that he endorses asked the briefing general if he and others could continue to hold and speak their beliefs against homosexuality.

According to Crews, "the general officer said, 'Chaplain, if you cannot fall in line with this policy, resign your commission.'"

To ensure active duty chaplains that they can practice their faith, Crews and other chaplain endorsers are arranging a coalition to provide legal and other support for chaplains who might be disciplined for sticking to their biblically held beliefs.

"No American, especially those who wear the uniform to serve their country, should be denied the right to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience," Crews stated.

Lawrence said the chaplains she followed always "figured out a way to stay true to their faith while being open to all the soldiers and Marines."

Chaplains are praying her observation remains true as they face this new challenge of their military careers.

To learn more about the documentary "Chaplains Under Fire" or to purchase a copy click here.

David French served for one year in Iraq as an Army JAG attorney. He now serves as senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.

French discussed the new gay military policy and it's possible impact on chaplains of "The 700 Club," July 20. Click play for his comments following Jennifer Wishon's report.

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.