An Army chaplain is fighting back against an investigator’s recommendation that he should be disciplined after refusing to facilitate a marriage retreat that includes same-sex couples.
Earlier this year, Army Maj. Scott Squires was serving as a chaplain at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There, he told a soldier he was unable to conduct a marriage retreat that included the soldier and the soldier’s same-sex partner due to his church’s restrictions.
An Army investigator later concluded Squires discriminated against the service member.
But Squires was following the requirements of his chaplain endorsing agency, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to Mike Berry, an attorney at First Liberty Institute, the religious liberties group representing Squires in his appeal.
First Liberty sent a letter to the Army urging it to reverse the investigator’s decision.
“Chaplain Squires is a Southern Baptist chaplain, so he has to follow the teachings of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Berry said. “NAMB, just like many other endorsing organizations, prohibits their chaplains from facilitating or providing religious services that include same sex couples, such as a marriage retreat like this.”
Berry argued that Squires followed his Army training by providing an alternative for the soldier. Squires rescheduled the event and found another chaplain to provide the service.
Squires said he feared bringing the same-sex couple on the retreat would cause him to lose his chaplain endorsement.
The Army has training guidance — although not an official policy — telling chaplains to adhere to their endorsers’ religious tenets in order to keep their endorsement, while also finding alternative solutions for situations like this, Berry said.
However, the religious tenets of Squires’ church are the real problem in this situation, according to Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group dedicated to upholding service members’ constitutional right of religious freedom.
He said the Southern Baptist Convention’s board should be reviewed as an approved endorsing agency in light of these beliefs.
“They’re saying the Army requires them to follow their endorsing agency, which is demanding that its chaplains follow something that our Supreme Court found was legal [in Obergefell v. Hodges],” Weinstein said. “Then our argument is [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] ought to disqualify that particular entity as a chaplain endorsing agency.”
Weinstein said the refusal of certain military chaplains to accommodate same-sex couples was comparable to refusing to accommodate mixed-race or mixed-religion couples.
“If you’re going to view same-sex couples as a sin against god, you can either hold your tongue, change your attitude, or get out of the military,” he said.
“This chaplain did not put his hand on a copy of the Constitution and swear allegiance to the New Testament,” Weinstein said. “He put his hand on the New Testament and took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.”
That same Constitution has been interpreted to give equal protection and total legitimacy to same-sex marriages, he added.
Berry said that it would be “ridiculous” to disqualify the Southern Baptist Convention — one of the largest endorsing agencies in the military.
“If their chaplains were no longer welcome because of their religious beliefs, that would be a clear violation of the Constitution,” Berry said. “And then what happens to all the other endorsing agencies that hold similar views? That would be the Roman Catholics, Muslims, and many others. Are they also disqualified now?”
“It would virtually eliminate the Chaplain Corps,” he added.
Berry said he hasn’t represented any military religious leaders of other faiths in a situation like this one, but reiterated that the Army has thought of the possibility and established training guidance for when it inevitably occurs.
“In this instance, Squires did exactly what Army regulations tell him to do, which is to reschedule the event,” Berry said. “In fact, the event was rescheduled at the detriment of other couples who could not attend the new event.”
“But that’s what the procedures say to do, so that’s what he did,” Berry added.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer