IS homosexuality immoral?

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says yes. It was what he was raised to believe, Pace told the Chicago Tribune last week. It's immoral, like adultery, and that's why the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy should continue. His comments made it inevitable that the question would be asked of all the presidential candidates.

First up, Hillary Clinton. She blinked. "Well, I'll leave that to others to conclude," she said.

The next day, Clinton released a statement saying she didn't believe homosexuality was immoral, sort of. Later, she released another, clearer statement. That didn't do much to assuage the disappointment among progressives that she can't seem to say what she thinks on the first try.

To be fair, the leading Republican candidates (McCain, Giuliani and Romney) were able to get away with statements calling for respect and tolerance, while avoiding questions of morality.

Among the other Democrats, Barack Obama initially ignored questions shouted to him when he was campaigning, then released a statement saying he didn't agree that homosexuality was immoral. John Edwards said right away that he didn't "share" Pace's view.

Clearly, the candidates wished they hadn't been asked or forced to tell what they believe. But now that the question is out, how would those "others" Clinton mentioned go about concluding what exactly is moral?

Morality isn't only about sex, even though that's what Christian conservatives would have us believe. Just last week, a group of ultra-conservative evangelicals attacked other slightly less-than-ultra-conservative evangelicals for working to prevent the mortal wounding of our planet through global warming.

James Dobson and others said working on that issue shifts emphasis from the "great moral issues of our time," in which they included only questions of sex: abortion, the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to children - and gay marriage.

Things like an unjust war, torture, leaving massive debt to our grandchildren, the social injustices of poverty and discrimination - these apparently are less important, less immoral, than two men or two women making love.

Still, there are moral questions to be asked about sexual relationships and for that, Bible verses don't suffice - at least not the verses that some have interpreted as relating to homosexual acts.

(Note to e-mailers: Thank you, but I already have a complete collection, from both the Old Testament and the New, purporting to read God's mind on this issue.)

Instead, I talked to the Rev. Debra Haffner, the founder and executive director of the Religious Institute on Spiritual Morality, Justice and Healing. On its Web site (www.religiousinstitute.org), you can find its Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, endorsed by 2,600 religious leaders from 40 faiths.

Haffner reminded me that the central teaching of every religion is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself. Haffner teaches that sexual morality depends not on particular sexual acts but on the relationships in which those acts occur.

To be moral, sex should be consensual, and in relationships that are committed, nonexploitive, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected against disease and unwanted pregnancy.

So heterosexual sex can be moral, but it can also be otherwise if it's exploitive or based on dishonesty. And homosexual acts can be moral if they occur in committed, honest relationships, and immoral if they don't. By this measure, adultery is always immoral, homosexuality is not.

Far from "if it feels good, do it," this standard of morality is more complex than one determined by the body parts involved in a particular sex act.

The political analysis last week was that Clinton and Obama had hesitated to say what they really believe because they feared a backlash from the slim majority of Americans who believe with Gen. Pace that homosexual acts are immoral. In so doing, they lost the opportunity to show courage and leadership - moral leadership.

Praying with the News: "Justice, justice shall thou pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). Let us pray that soon we shall feel confident again that our U.S. attorneys are fulfilling their mandates to pursue justice for all Americans, Republican or Democrat. Amen. *

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer who was a longtime member of the Daily News editorial board. E-mail her at

carol.towarnicky@verizon.net.