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LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — The Southern Baptist Convention, which provides the largest share of active-duty military chaplains, has barred members from taking part in weddings, counseling sessions and couples retreats for same-sex couples.
The North American Mission Board, an arm of the Nashville, Tenn.-based SBC, also prohibits chaplains from participating in any services that would appear to endorse or accept same-sex unions.
The group issued the decision in the wake of the U.S. Department of Defense recognizing same-sex marriages and extending benefits to gay spouses.
"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. "We believe these updated guidelines will help them do that while still sharing the love and the hope of Christ with everyone."
Mike Ebert, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based NAMB, said the Southern Baptist Convention spoke with defense officials before issuing the guidelines.
Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said chaplains may participate in private ceremonies on or off military installations as long as the ceremony is legal under state and local law.
"Further, 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," Christensen said.
The Pentagon, following a Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, said last month same-sex spouses of troops will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits as heterosexual spouses. The policy went into effect Tuesday.
Last year, Congress approved conscience protections for military members, which allows them to express their personal beliefs without fear of punishment.
"We were getting questions from our chaplains, can you please clarify what we can and cannot do. We wanted to provide clarity to our guys," Ebert said.
NAMB-affiliated chaplains will not conduct or attend a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple, bless such a marriage or perform counseling before a same-sex union. The guidelines also prohibit chaplains from supporting same-sex events, including relationship training or retreats, whether they are on or off a military base, if participation "gives the appearance of accepting the homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing."
Chaplains are "free to lead or participate in a worship service" as long as the service isn't with a chaplain, volunteer or contractor who "personally practices or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct."
Chaplains are expected to "treat all service members, regardless of rank or behavior, with Christ-centered dignity, honor 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.
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, Torpy said.
"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."
The military has 439 active-duty chaplains and 268 reserve-duty chaplains affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. That makes it the largest affiliation among the services, according to the latest data from March. The military has a total of 2,884 active-duty chaplains, with another 2,375 in the reserves.
About 140,000 active-duty service members identify themselves as Baptists, with about 13,000 saying they are part of the Southern Baptist Convention.