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WASHINGTON — Conservative groups predict tight restrictions on chaplains’ religious speech if the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is overturned, with some evangelical Christian groups contemplating pulling their ministers out of the ranks.

“The approved gospel will be a politically correct gospel,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian lobbying group that deals with marriage and family issues. “If chaplains are limited in the moral teachings they can present [because of a repeal], you will see orthodox Christian chaplains leaving the military.”

Religious leaders in and outside the military doubted those predictions.

Air Force Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Cecil Richardson said he thinks a repeal will be a “difficult transition,” but “I don’t know a single chaplain who wants to get out because of that issue.”

Richardson said he sent out guidance on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” controversy earlier this year, which stated “there will be loud voices on this issue; don’t let them be yours.” He hopes the politics of the repeal debate doesn’t distract from the ministry.

“We will have chaplains who feel a need to be faithful in preaching the Bible, but I’ve never met a chaplain who was mean-spirited,” Richardson said. “They need to be faithful to their calling, but they won’t be in any way excluding people. People of homosexual orientation will not find chaplains to be their enemy.”

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said military chaplains are used to counseling troops of different faiths and backgrounds, and he sees no major obstacles in how chaplains operate if a repeal takes place.

Defense Department officials are in the midst of a yearlong review of the 17-year-old policy, which bans gays from serving openly in the military. Both chambers of Congress are debating legislation to change the law and could include a repeal in the fiscal 2011 Defense Authorization bill.

In a letter sent earlier this week, 41 retired military chaplains working with the Family Research Council urged President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to “protect religious liberty” by leaving the ban in place.

“We are not saying that active-duty chaplains … would be unwilling to minister to those who engage in homosexual behavior,” the letter states. “But condoning conduct that God says is harmful and sinful would both violate chaplains’ religious calling and betray servicemembers relying on them for godly counsel.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Jordan Lawrence, spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund, another Christian lobbying group, said a repeal means that sermons against gay marriage or counseling advising against gay relationships could lead to demotions and dismissal for chaplains.

Arthur Schulcz of the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers said several churches affiliated with his group have discussed pulling their chaplains out of the military rather than have them compromise their stance against homosexuality.

Retired Army chaplain Brigadier Gen. Douglas Lee said he worries that gay rights activists will push that even further, labeling Bible studies “hate speech” if they don’t accept gay relationships as permissible behavior.

Gaddy, whose Interfaith Alliance is part of a coalition of 29 religious organizations publicly backing a repeal, said nothing in the plans to dump “don’t ask, don’t tell” would label religious concerns over homosexuality as punishable hate speech.

“People can disagree on issues but still serve together,” he said. “If someone is inciting violence, then the military has a responsibility to step in. But [repeal opponents] aren’t giving the military enough credit for common sense.”

He also noted that chaplains already make sacrifices when they sign up for the military, acknowledging that they’ll have to serve a diverse population that may not embrace the morals they do.

“They’ve never conditioned who they’ll give ministry to based on their background or beliefs,” Gaddy said.

Defense officials conducting the repeal review have said their research will look into effects that openly gay troops could have on military benefits, unit morale and even chaplain operations.

Stars and Stripes reporter T.D. Flack contributed to this story.

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