Facing a firestorm, Navy reverses course on performing same-sex marriages

The chief of Navy chaplains had said same-sex marriages could be performed in military chapels as soon as 'don't ask, don't tell' ends. But a sharply critical response has put that on hold.

Lenny Ignelzi/AP
United States Marines attend a training session to familiarize them with the military's new position regarding gay and lesbian service members and the repeal of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Mix military service, religious practice, and gay marriage and you’re sure to come up with a combustible political situation.

The US Navy has just found this out with its on-again, off-again attempt to allow chaplains to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies on naval and Marine Corps bases.

In a memo last month, the chief of Navy chaplains, Rear Adm. Mark Tidd, said that same-sex marriages would be permitted at chapels in states where gay marriages are recognized, although not until the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay members serving openly had officially ended.

But when Tidd’s memo – sent as part of the Navy’s training in preparation for the expected end of don’t ask, don’t tell later this year – became known, members of Congress and conservative organizations reacted with swift and sharp ire.

Tidd quickly backtracked, issuing a second memo saying that his earlier decision had been "suspended until further notice pending additional legal and policy review and interdepartmental coordination." As critics pointed out, neither the US Army nor the US Air Force had made similar decisions, nor had there been any overall Defense Department guidance on same-sex marriage or civil unions.

The Navy’s chief chaplain had gotten way out in front of elected officials and much of US society – not to mention the US military establishment. Traditional marriage had won, at least for now.

“In this case, a senior officer issued something that is contrary to common sense, sound policy and the assurances given to Congress,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, told The Washington Post.

In essence, two iconic and controversial laws with profound social implications – the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman – had clashed, and the reaction was not surprising.

In a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, 63 House members wrote: “We find it unconscionable that the United States Navy, a federal entity sworn to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States, believes it is their place alone to train and direct service members to violate federal law.”

“We find it difficult to understand how the military is somehow exempt from abiding by federal law,” they wrote. “Not only does this document imply recognition and support of same-sex marriage in opposition to DOMA, but it also implies that the Navy will now perform these marriages as long as they do not violate state statutes. Offering up federal facilities and federal employees for same-sex marriages violates DOMA, which is still the law of the land and binds our military, including chaplains. The Administration and various states may be operating as if DOMA doesn’t exist, but the Navy and Marine Corps and all the Armed Services are sworn to obey the law, which this new instruction violates.”

The issue is expected to become part of the debate over the defense spending bill.

Gay rights groups vowed to keep up the fight.

“Hopefully, the matter will be reviewed again by calmer heads with a focus on the law, not on the irrational fears of opponents who want to interject the gay marriage debate into the defense spending bill where it does not belong,” Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told the Washington Blade, a leading gay news source. “SLDN stands by its earlier analysis that the Navy’s guidance was both ‘prudent and correct’ and no chaplain is being forced to marry anyone on or off base.”

This week’s flap does nothing politically positive for President Obama.

The administration announced in February that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in cases pending in federal court. And its effort to end don’t ask, don’t tell pleases neither conservatives nor – because of its deliberately slow pace – gay rights advocates.

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