WASHINGTON-Navy Lt. Gary Ross and his partner of 11 years, Dan Swezy, exchanged wedding vows in Vermont at the stroke of midnight on Sept. 20-the first moment possible after the military formally repealed the longstanding "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Now, with a Sept. 30 ruling from the Pentagon, such ceremonies may be performed by chaplains and take place inside military bases. The ruling is already putting pressure on chaplains who worry that it brings the Armed Services one step closer to alienating conservative Christian denominations.
The Pentagon's decision 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.
Crews said 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 the union of one man and one woman. The Pentagon's new policy does not force a chaplain to perform same-sex ceremonies, 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.
Many former chaplains 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," said Doug Lee, a retired brigadier general chaplain. 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Passed last December by a lame-duck Congress, the law repealed the long-standing "don't ask, don't tell" policy that had prohibited homosexuals from openly serving in the military. It did not address same-sex weddings on military bases or by military chaplains. Crews and Lee said this latest decision reinforces the need for Congress to intervene and clearly define the rights of a chaplain.