WASHINGTON — The Defense Department issued new guidelines Friday that allow military chaplains to officiate at same-sex weddings, on or off military installations, in states where such weddings are allowed.
No chaplain is required to participate in a same-sex wedding, if it violates personal or religious beliefs, the Pentagon said. Since the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriages, the department wouldn't endorse them, it added.
"The guidance issued today strikes the right balance between respecting the faith traditions of chaplains and affording all service members the same rights under current law," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights organization.
The Pentagon is treading carefully around the unsettled issue as it transitions away from the longstanding prohibition against gay service members declaring their sexuality.
Though "don't ask, don't tell" is now history, some Republican members of Congress want the Pentagon to prohibit same-sex weddings, and the House Armed Services Committee passed amendments to the 2012 defense appropriations bill last year that are intended to require that.
One by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would ban military chaplains and Pentagon employees from participating in same-sex weddings and would prohibit the use of military installations for such purposes. The Democratic-majority Senate has yet to consider the legislation.
Akin sent a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in May, signed by 62 other members of Congress, when the Navy issued its own guidelines permitting chaplains to officiate over same-sex weddings, anticipating the eventual end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"We find it difficult to understand how the military is somehow exempt from abiding by federal law," the letter said. "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."
Six states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage. The Obama Justice Department has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and President Barack Obama has called for its repeal.
For gay and lesbian service members, the end of "don't ask, don't tell" presents a new challenge: gaining for same-sex couples the same housing, medical and family support benefits that are available to opposite-sex couples. Federal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice currently prevent that.
"Same work, same risk, same sacrifice equals same pay and benefits," Sarvis said. "Now that's not going to be true for legally married gay and lesbian service members. And it's an inequity that service members are going to complain about, and I believe their commanders in the field will be receptive when the troops point out this inequity."
"Just on the face of it, you'd think there would be an equal protection claim there," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a co-sponsor of legislation to repeal the federal law.
Sarvis said his organization and its allies were pursuing a fix through Congress and the courts, but that it would be in the best interest of the Pentagon and Congress to resolve the issue themselves rather than having the courts make a decision that affected the military.
"It's pretty extraordinary when our courts are directing the armed forces," he said. "That's not a scenario the executive branch or the armed forces are comfortable with."
Price said it might be only a matter of time before the military took the lead.
"I think the military could become a progressive force," he said. "It's an evolution that one could imagine."
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