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One Step Forward, One Step Back

One Step Forward, One Step Back


When he first read a Navy chaplain's April 13 memo clarifying whether same-sex weddings should be permitted on military bases after "don't ask, don't tell" is officially repealed, retired Chaplain John F. Gundlach knew it was only a matter of time before the two-page document, written by a former colleague, would become a de facto political football.

Granted, it took nearly a month before conservative lawmakers shouted "Game on," but Gundlach was right. "I knew once they got their hands on [the memo], they were going to be upset by it. And they have been," Gundlach said of social conservatives.

As part of DADT repeal training for military chaplains, Gundlach's former colleague, Navy Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Mark L. Tidd, had clarified upon the advice of legal counsel that base facilities were "sexual orientation neutral." Individual chaplains would therefore be permitted -- and expressly not obligated -- to officiate weddings for gay and lesbian service members at base facilities in states that allow marriage for same-sex couples.

The memo was first picked up by the conservative website Media Research Center. Family Research Council subsequently had a field day on it: "If the [Obama] administration keeps pounding its agenda through the military, we'll need the Navy SEALs to rescue marriage," the organization quipped in a blog post earlier this week.

Tidd's guidance was not in conflict with specific language contained in the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Yet certain members of Congress nevertheless couldn't resist the opportunity to score political points with key special interests.

"It seems like the Pentagon was thinking that the U.S. law code was an a la carte menu, that they could follow one thing and ignore another one, but unfortunately they hadn't done their homework," Rep. Todd Akin told Concerned Women for America's Martha Kleder in a recent radio appearance. On Wednesday, Akin offered an amendment to the House defense authorization act to prohibit on-base, same-sex weddings by military chaplains.

"The Navy got it," Akin said, victoriously. "Thought about it a little bit... and all of the sudden, they're saying, 'Oh my goodness, we're getting a black eye here.'"

DOMA does not expressly forbid allowing such weddings to take place on military property, nor does it prohibit federal employees from officiating in same-sex unions. Yet these facts seemed to be lost on both interviewer and subject. Even a recent perusal of the New York Times' Weddings/Celebrations section confirms as much on the latter point:

"Jack O'Kelley III and John Alan Haskins were married Saturday evening at Meridian House in Washington. Judge Barrington D. Parker Jr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit officiated," the Times reported on May 6.

Rev. Gundlach and several other chaplains interviewed by The Advocate -- both active and retired -- praised Rear Adm. Tidd's original guidance on the matter and expressed disappointment that conservative groups and lawmakers likely forced the hand of the highly respected chaplain. Tidd declined an interview request via a Chief of Chaplains spokesman, who called the current situation "a delicate issue until things progress a little further."

But Chaplain Tidd, Gundlach insisted, was well within his capacity as Chief of Chaplains to issue the April guidance. "When he was asked about the use of military chapels for same-sex weddings, he had two choices: either lead the whole Navy chaplain corps, or throw his stars on the desk," Gundlach said. "Don't forget that this is an outstanding individual, a man of integrity."

Another former Navy chaplain agreed. "It's such a disappointing setback, though it's only a matter of time before all the branches go forward on this," said Rev. Dr. Sandra Bochonok. A former Navy chaplain who worked with Tidd, Bochonok was originally ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church of America but became a clergy member of the Metropolitan Community Church after leaving the Navy in 1996. "Mark Tidd is a good leader and a superb chaplain. I don't envy his position on this contentious issue. I know no matter what he does, he's going to make someone unhappy."

How the Defense Department aims to reconcile the matter remains unclear at this point, though a final policy decision will likely not be coming from Tidd's desk. "The issue is under thorough review for legal and policy matters," Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said Thursday. Asked whether there will be a Defense Department-wide policy for on-base, same-sex weddings, Lainez replied, "[T]hat is part of what will happen in the review."

The prospect of service members marrying on base, in ceremonies officiated by military chaplains, has been the latest red meat for lawmakers seeking to obstruct "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and decrying what they argue is the eroded enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act under the Obama administration.

On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee voted to bring to a floor vote the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012--which contains three amendments aimed at delaying DADT repeal or the application of DOMA--even where it has not been otherwise specified under U.S. Law, as evidenced by Akin's amendment.

"DOMA only addresses two things: the definition of marriage under federal law, and state reciprocity in recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states," said David McKean, an attorney with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "It doesn't say anything about the use of federal property or the activities of federal employees."

One senator recently interviewed by The Advocate said the chances of such amendments ultimately passing are slim at best.

Throughout the repeal implementation process, defense officials have been adamant that DADT repeal will not infringe on the free speech rights of chaplains whose denominations do not approve of same-sex unions.

"When chaplains are engaged in the performance of religious services, they may not be required to engage in practices contrary to their religious beliefs," Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford L. Stanley wrote in a January memo to service branch chiefs. "Service members will continue to respect and serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs."

Perhaps one of the more profound consequences of the Tidd memo and its politicization is the reaction from current chaplains who are trying to do their job, and stay true to their faith, in the midst of Washington theatrics.

"None of this changes my job," said one active Navy chaplain who asked not to be named. "My job is to take care of my sailors, and that remains: regardless of faith, lack of faith, or sexual orientation. The only thing that changes for me, it seems, is that until DOMA gets reversed, if I want to [officiate] a same-sex union, which my faith tradition allows, I'll now have to do it off the military base."
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