A married same-sex couple at Fort Irwin in California were told that they could not participate in a marriage enrichment program organized by the Army’s Chaplain Corps because of their sexual orientation. According to Shakera Leigh Halford, whose wife is stationed at Fort Irwin, the two were told they were “ineligible” for the “Strong Bonds” retreat.
The reason for the discrimination seems to be the ultimatum placed on chaplains by the Southern Baptist Convention and Catholic Church. Both religious organizations told their military chaplains that they are not permitted to participate in any activity or service that recognizes or accommodates same-sex couples. Thus, the churches are forcing military chaplains to discriminate against gay and lesbian servicemembers in order to keep their jobs.
The American Military Partners Association (AMPA), which is representing the couple, points out that military guidance requires chaplains who cannot perform a certain service to find a chaplain who can, but that guidance was not followed in this case. Stephen Peters, the group’s president, believes this is a clear example of why the Department of Defense needs to institute clear nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation beyond the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:
PETERS: It is highly disturbing that gay and lesbian service members and their spouses are still being excluded from resources provided through the United States Army. This is yet another example of the importance of adding sexual orientation to the Department of Defense non-discrimination policy and equal opportunity program. It is far past time that our military families are protected from this kind of discrimination and valued for their service to our nation.
Chris Rowzee, a spokesperson for AMPA, notes that this speaks to a concern not just about anti-gay discrimination, but about “the bigger picture of how the Chaplain Corps is responding to the needs of our service members.”
House Republicans have proposed again this year expanding a military “conscience clause” that would protect anti-gay discrimination throughout the military.
According to a statement from the AMPA Friday afternoon, Fort Irwin is claiming that no lesbian soldier was turned away and that a chaplain from another base will be brought in to provide the service. The Fort also claims to have met with the couple to discuss the situation; however, Halford says nobody told her anything other than that she was “ineligible,” and she now believes that she will be subjected to “separate, but equal” treatment:
The Fort Irwin Public Affairs office released a statement refuting the allegation that a lesbian soldier was turned away from participating in a “Strong Bonds” marriage enrichment retreat at the base with her wife, AMPA member Shakera Leigh Halford. They stated that when they became aware there were no chaplains at the base who’s religious affiliation would permit them to provide this service to same-sex couples, the Commander directed that a chaplain be brought in from another base to provide the service. Further, they state that the Commander then met with the couple to reassure them they were seeking support. The AMPA member, Shakera Leigh Halford, the wife of the active-duty U.S. soldier, reports however, that no one from the base command structure or the chaplain’s office has contacted her, no one has met with her, nor has anyone communicated that there are any “alternative arrangements” being made to provide them support.
“No one told us there was any alternative being sought; they just said we weren’t ‘eligible’” said Ms. Halford. When told that another program might be planned, one that they could attend, Ms. Halford expressed concerns with this “separate, but equal” treatment. “I feel like we are being spotlighted, singled out, for special arrangements. It makes the whole thing very awkward and embarrassing. Why can’t we just be another couple at the retreat, like everyone else? Why do we have to have special arrangements?”