The setting: The office of a priest who serves as a military chaplain. The time: This hypothetical encounter occurs soon after the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forbids gays, lesbians and bisexuals to openly serve in America's armed forces.
The scene: An officer requests counseling about tensions with her same-sex partner as they prepare for marriage. The priest says this would be inappropriate, since his church teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin and that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for unions of a man and a woman.
The priest offers to refer her to a chaplain at another base who represents a church that performs same-sex rites. The officer accepts, but is less than pleased at the inconvenience.
What happens next? That question is driving the tense church-state debates that continue behind the scenes of the political drama that surrounds "don't ask, don't tell."
"If the government normalizes homosexual behavior in the armed forces, many (if not most) chaplains will confront a profoundly difficult moral choice: whether they are to obey God or to obey men," stated a September letter from 60-plus retired chaplains to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," they argued, will cripple the ability of many chaplains to provide counseling. "Service members seeking guidance regarding homosexual relationships will place chaplains in an untenable position. If chaplains answer such questions according to the tenets of their faith, stating that homosexual relationships are sinful and harmful, then they run the risk of career-ending accusations of insubordination and discrimination. And if chaplains simply decline to provide counseling at all on that issue, they may still face discipline for discrimination."
These complaints are "somewhat disingenuous," according to the Rev. John F. Gundlach, a retired Navy chaplain from the United Church of Christ, the progressive Protestant denomination into which Obama was baptized.
"These chaplains ... will continue to have the same rights they've always had to preach, teach, counsel, marry and conduct religious matters according to the tenets of their faith. They will also continue to have the responsibility to refer servicemembers to other chaplains when their own theology or conscience will not allow them to perform the services to which a servicemember is entitled," stressed Gundlach, writing in Stars and Stripes. "Any chaplain who can't fulfill this expectation should find somewhere else to do ministry."
The urgency of these debates will only increase after this week's Pentagon statement instructing its recruiters to accept openly gay applicants, a shift driven by a federal court decision barring the military from expelling openly gay soldiers.
Military chaplains are already being asked to serve as doctrinal Swiss Army knifes, performing rites and prayers for personnel from a variety of flocks when the need arises. This kind of pluralism is easy for chaplains from some traditions, but not others.
Meanwhile, it's hard for chaplains to refer troubled soldiers to clergy in foxholes 30 miles away. It's impossible to have a variety of chaplains -- Southern Baptists and Wiccans, Catholic priests and rabbis -- serving on every base, let alone in submarines.
There is no easy way out of this church-state maze.
If "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, "no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted," noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they "can never condone -- even silently -- homosexual behavior."
A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: "If our chaplains were in any way ... prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as 'prejudice' or the denunciation of homosexuality as 'hate language,' or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service."
So be it, said Gundlach. While these chaplains "worry about being discriminated against, they openly discriminate against some of the very people they are pledged to serve and serve with. If the hate speech currently uttered by some conservative chaplains and their denominations is any indication of how they will respond in the future, we can expect this discrimination to continue."
These chaplains need to resign, he said. The armed services "will be the better for it."