Published May 11, 2011
The Navy has abruptly reversed its decision to allow chaplains to perform same-sex marriages once the military's ban on openly gay service members is lifted, after dozens of House lawmakers complained.
Rear Adm. Mark Tidd, chief of Navy chaplains, issued a one-sentence memo Tuesday announcing that the earlier decision has been "suspended until further notice pending additional legal and policy review and inter-departmental coordination."
A senior Navy official told Fox News the legal counsel determined the suspension would be necessary "until broader legal and policy questions are answered."
The original memo would have allowed for Navy chaplains to perform gay marriages in states where it is legal only after the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is repealed. Military training to apply the new law allowing gays to serve openly began earlier this year and is expected to be completed by midsummer.
But House members wrote to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to object to the Navy's initial ruling, saying the service was violating the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act by appearing to recognize and support same-sex marriages. That law defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, and it also says states don't have to recognize gay marriages performed in other states where they are legal.
"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," said the lawmakers' letter, which was signed by 63 House members.
The lawmakers asked Mabus to direct the Navy to defend the Constitution, adding that individuals should not be allowed to pick and choose the laws they will follow.
In addition, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., plans to offer an amendment Wednesday that would bar military facilities from being used for same-sex marriages.
The Navy's decision triggered an uproar, particularly since the Army and Air Force had not made similar decisions, and there was no overall Defense Department guidance issued on the same-sex marriage issue.
But an advocacy group opposed to "don't ask, don't tell" urged the Navy to return to its original decision.
"The Navy and their lawyers got this right last month. Facilities use in the 'Don't Ask' post-repeal world should be sexual orientation neutral. We are confident that the 'additional legal and policy review' promised by the Navy will lead to the same result as the one announced in April," said Aubrey Sarvis, director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "This should 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."
Navy officials had said Monday that they updated the training after questions came up about civil ceremonies for gay couples.
In earlier training guidelines issued by the Defense Department and the military services, same-sex marriage ceremonies were not mentioned and therefore not explicitly prohibited.
When first asked about the Navy's decision to allow the training, the Pentagon said the federal Defense of Marriage Act does not restrict the types of ceremonies a chaplain may perform in a chapel on a military base. And officials have repeatedly stressed that the military would not compel chaplains to perform a same-sex union if it was against their religious beliefs.
The military dust-up comes against the backdrop of the Obama administration's decision in February to no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time that President Obama concluded that the law was unconstitutional.
The Pentagon has been moving carefully to implement the repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. Under the law passed and signed by the president in December, final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight.
Under the Navy's initial ruling, the ceremonies would be allowed at military facilities such as chapel and catering centers, but only in states that already recognize same-sex marriages or unions.
And even if a marriage is performed, same-sex partners would not get any health, housing or other benefits that are provided to married couples involving a man and woman.
The Air Force and Army did not include discussion of same-sex marriage ceremonies in their training.
Under Pentagon guidelines, chaplains and other key military leaders were among the first tier of service members to be trained about the new law repealing the ban on openly gay service. Much of that instruction has been completed, so the Navy will send out updates to include the marriage ceremony provision.
Under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, service members face dismissal if they revealed they were gay.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.