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Army chaplain denied military gay couple attendance at a marriage retreat citing religious beliefs

Fort Bragg lesbian couple denied access to marriage retreat by military chaplain.
Photo credit:
Wikimedia Commons

Fayetteville, NC. -- Maj. J. Scott Squires, A Fort Bragg chaplain, may face harsh disciplinary action after being accused of discriminating against a lesbian couple who wanted to attend a military couple's retreat according to The Fayetteville Observer.

Squires, a Southern Baptist,  was approached by the unidentified female sergeant who wanted to reserve one of the ten spots for the Strong Bonds marriage retreat. However, Squires said based on his religious beliefs, he would not allow them to participate since he was the one facilitating it.

The Army’s Equal Opportunity policy which is supposed to be inclusive of gay married couples conflicts with Squires’ endorsement by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention which doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage.

The conservative First Liberty Institute is representing Squires in the case and they argue he did nothing wrong and shouldn’t be punished.

“Chaplain Squires should not have his career ruined for following the rules of both his faith and the Army,” said Mike Berry, First Liberty’s deputy general counsel and director of military affairs. “Federal law protects Chaplain Squires and prohibits the military from punishing any chaplain who acts in accordance with their religious tenets.”

However, Matt Thorn of OutServe-SLDN a legal non-profit service which defends LGBT men and women in the military says the chaplain’s actions are concerning and adds he’s not aware of another case like this.

An internal investigation into to the allegations did turn up evidence that Squires and another unnamed chaplain’s assistant discriminated against the couple.

Investigators in their report suggested there be disciplinary action taken based on what they uncovered. But thus far none has been taken.

“This is an ongoing investigation,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, the commanding general of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. “We take every discrimination claim seriously and afford all members of our community the right to equality. The command embraces the diversity of each individual in our organization and welcomes the responsibility to create an inclusive workplace.”

A complaint was filed by the female servicemember on Feb. 6 after she and her wife were denied participation in the three-day couple’s retreat taking place on the weekend of Feb. 9.

Initially reaching out to the chaplain’s assistant to reserve a spot, she was directed to Squires instead who told her she could not be a part of the event because he was facilitating it. He offered instead to notify her of upcoming retreats headed by chaplains who recognize same-sex marriage.

Not satisfied the sergeant sought council from her command, but by then all the couples slots had been filled.

After the equal opportunity complaint was filed, investigators discovered Squires did try to find a replacement chaplain, but in doing so the retreat would have to be rescheduled for a later date in February.

The Investigator into the case concluded that both religious leaders violated Army policy that protects soldiers from being denied services based on race, color, national origin, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation.

The conflict comes into play between chaplain corps policy and equal opportunity policy.

North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote in a letter that any action taken against Squires is a violation of federal law and military policy and they would defend Squires even if that means taking more legal action.

The investigator said that the chaplain’s restrictive religious guidelines are not ones that can overpower the sergeant’s right to attend the retreat with her wife.

Chaplain corps policy states that they must either perform their duties or provide an alternative chaplain if there is a conflict. But the investigator noted the protocol is unclear and the equal opportunity policy further complicates the issue.

“The two policies together place the command in a position in which to meet one’s rights you would have to infringe upon another’s rights,” the investigating officer wrote in a report.

Lt. Col. Richard Winchester, in defense of Squires, asked that the investigator’s report be thrown out, “Chaplain Squires is a highly motivated leader who models selfless service.” He adds, “He strives to live by the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ providing quality care to those under his charge regardless of background.”

Fort Bragg’s highest ranking chaplain, Col. Keith N. Croom, also defends Squires,

“This situation is not an example of discrimination,” Croom said. “It is an example of a same sex couple, the equal opportunity representative and the investigating officer not understanding the position of the chaplain regarding their own religious accommodation, religious liberty and the chaplain endorsing agencies.”

Berry of First Liberty says he is scratching his head at the conflict, and the Army could be losing one of its most promising officers, “We urge the Army to follow the law, just as Chaplain Squires did. Chaplains should not have to give up their First Amendment rights in order to serve.”

But Out Serve lawyer Thorn says chaplains are there to serve service members and that should be the priority. Refusing to perform a same-sex wedding might be one thing, but to deny a gay couple who want to attend a marriage retreat is another.

“The military is going to have to address this,” he said. “This will probably not be the last incident."