Col. Timothy Wagoner has been an Air Force chaplain for 20 years, serving a denomination—the Southern Baptists—that rejects same-sex relationships.
Yet here he was at the chapel he oversees, watching supportively as an airman and his male partner celebrated a civil union ceremony.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Wagoner said at the McGuire Air Force Base chapel, days later. “I don’t feel I’m compromising my beliefs ... I’m supporting the community.”
Wagoner didn’t officiate at the ceremony—he couldn’t go quite that far. But his very presence at the gathering was a marker of how things have changed for active-duty clergy in the nine months since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed and gays could serve openly in the US military.
Prior to repeal, various conservative groups and individuals—including many conservative retired chaplains—warned that repeal would trigger an exodus of chaplains whose faiths consider homosexual activity to be sinful. In fact, there’s been no significant exodus—perhaps two or three departures of active-duty chaplains linked to the repeal. Moreover, chaplains or their civilian coordinators from a range of conservative faiths told The Associated Press they knew of virtually no serious problems thus far involving infringement of chaplains’ religious freedom or rights of conscience.
“To say the dust has settled would be premature,” said Air Force Col. Gary Linsky, a Roman Catholic priest who oversees 50 fellow chaplains in the Air Mobility Command. “But I’ve received no complaints from chaplains raising concerns that their ministries were in any way conflicted or constrained.”
Wagoner, who commands five other chaplains at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey, said the chaplaincy corps was responding professionally and collegially to what he called a “balancing act” precipitated by the repeal.
“We’re good at this stuff—we want to take care of our folks,” he said. “We have to respect the faith requirements of the chaplain and we have to take care of the needs of the airman.”
That attitude meshes with the official Pentagon guidelines on the repeal: “The Chaplain Corps’ First Amendment freedoms and their duty to care for all have not changed. All service members will continue to serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs, and they will be expected to treat everyone with respect.”
Wagoner would not have been willing to officiate at the June 23 civil union ceremony at the McGuire chapel, nor would his Catholic or Mormon colleagues. But he had no problem with another member of his team, Navy Chaplain Kay Reeb of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, doing so.
Reeb, who will be leaving the Navy in a few weeks after 20 years as a chaplain, held a couple of pre-ceremony consultations with the couple—Tech. Sgt. Erwynn Umali and civilian Will Behrens—and was impressed by their commitment to one another.
On hand at the chapel were the couple’s family and friends, several gay-rights activists, and Sgt. Elizabeth Garcia, the chaplain’s assistant who handled logistical arrangements. And then there was Wagoner, whose denomination preaches that homosexuality is sinful and is “not a valid alternative lifestyle.”
“As a Southern Baptist, why was I here? I was here to lend support,” Wagoner said. “I was here supporting Airman Umali. I’ve worked with him. He’s a comrade in arms.”