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Ron Crews (Associated Press/Photo by Christopher Berkey)

Conflicting orders

Marriage | Friday's Pentagon ruling on same-sex unions contradicts the Defense of Marriage Act and puts pressure on chaplains

WASHINGTON-Conservatives warn that the Pentagon's recent decision to allow military chaplains to perform same-sex unions on or off military bases brings the Armed Services one step closer to alienating conservative Christian denominations.

The Pentagon's ruling on Friday, coming less than two weeks after gays and lesbians gained the ability to serve openly in the military, allows Defense Department property to be used for same-sex ceremonies as long as such unions are not prohibited by state law.

But Ron Crews, a retired military chaplain with the rank of colonel, said this latest Defense Department memo "flies in the face" of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). "I am just stunned by the brazenness of this apparent permission for chaplains to violate federal law," said Crews, who is now a chaplain endorser who helps dominations sponsor military chaplains.

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He pointed out that all military bases are federal property and should respect federal laws such as DOMA, which states that the federal government can only recognize marriage as unions between one man and one woman. "One branch of government seems to be ignoring another branch of government," Crews said.

The Pentagon's new policy does not force chaplains to perform same-sex ceremonies if it conflicts with that chaplain's religious beliefs. But Crews said this changed military landscape might force conservative chaplains into a defensive posture, as some groups are likely to test the limits of the ruling. "A new front has opened up requiring vigilance to ensure that ministry comes from a biblical background," he said.

Doug Lee, a retired brigadier general chaplain, said chaplain endorsers are encouraging new chaplains to continue to be a source of counsel for the nation's soldiers while "serving according to the tenants of their faith." He added, "It is a red flag that the Pentagon is sort of dabbling into church affairs by talking about what a chaplain can and can't do. Chaplains exist to serve their faith group, and those faith groups make decisions about a chaplain's ministry."

Passed last December by a lame-duck Congress, the law repealing the long-standing "Don't Ask, Don't' Tell" policy that had prohibited homosexuals from openly serving in the military did not address authorizing same-sex weddings on military bases or by military chaplains. Crews said this reinforces the need for Congress to intervene and clearly define the rights of a chaplain.

Already this year, congressional lawmakers had to step in after a U.S. Navy memo declared that same-sex weddings could occur at chapels in states that recognize gay marriage.

In response, the House Armed Services Committee in May approved legislation that explicitly prohibits U.S. military bases from being used to solemnize same-sex unions. The committee also approved a measure that bars military chaplains from officiating at gay marriages. But the measure has stalled in the Senate.

Navy officials revoked their memo. But last Friday's military-wide directive resembled the April guidance offered by the Navy's Chief of Chaplains.

"The Department of Defense has decided to put the White House's liberal agenda ahead of following the law," said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., the main sponsor of the House-passed amendment that federal employees and federal property can only be used to support marriages that are consistent with DOMA. "The use of federal property or federal employees to perform gay marriage ceremonies is a clear contravention of the law."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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