LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Southern Baptist Convention, which provides the largest share of active-duty U.S. military chaplains, has barred members from performing gay marriages and taking part in counselling sessions and couples retreats for same-sex couples.
An arm of the group, the North American Mission Board, issued the decision in response to the Department of Defence recognizing same-sex marriages and extending benefits to gay spouses.
The decision highlights opposition among some religious groups to the momentum in the U.S. in favour of gay marriage.
The Pentagon said last month same-sex spouses of troops will be eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual spouses. The policy took effect Tuesday.
Defence Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said, "A chaplain is not required to participate in or officiate a private ceremony if doing so would be in variance with the tenets of his or her religion or personal beliefs."
The military has 439 active-duty chaplains and 268 reserve-duty chaplains affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The military has a total of 2,884 active-duty chaplains, with another 2,375 in the reserves.
"Our chaplains want to uphold the authority and relevancy of Scripture while continuing to serve in a very diverse setting," Doug Carver, a retired Army major general who leads NAMB's chaplaincy efforts, said in a statement Aug. 29. "
Mike Ebert, a spokesman for the NAMB, said the Southern Baptist Convention spoke with defence officials before issuing the guidelines.
"We were getting questions from our chaplains, can you please clarify what we can and cannot do," Ebert said.
The guidelines prohibit chaplains from supporting same-sex events, whether they are on or off a military base, if participation "gives the appearance of accepting the homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing."
Chaplains are expected to "treat all service members, regardless of rank or behaviour, with Christ-centred dignity, honour and respect while assisting the institutional leadership in its religious mission requirements and responsibilities as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," the guidance notes.
About 140,000 active-duty service members identify themselves as Baptists, with about 13,000 saying they are part of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, said the move by the Southern Baptist Convention could have wide repercussions, and the military could restrict chaplains to only faith-based duties.
"That would be the worst situation," Torpy said "It's just as frustrating for us, as it is to other communities, to see Southern Baptist do something that really undermines the chaplaincy."
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