WASHINGTON—When President Obama signed a defense spending bill into law on Jan. 2, he included a statement suggesting that his administration might ignore a provision in the law providing religious liberty protections to service members. Obama called the law’s conscience clause, designed to shield military chaplains from being forced to conduct same-sex marriages, “unnecessary and ill-advised.”
But Chaplain Ron Crews, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and the executive director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, said some chaplains have already been faced with same-sex couples wanting marriage ceremonies in military chapels.
“Chaplains should be able to stand by their faith traditions and honor their commitment to God’s Word,” Crews said. “That’s a freedom that Congress sought to protect, and the president is not at liberty to disregard the law.”
That is a statement that the 2008 Barack Obama might have supported. As a presidential candidate, Obama criticized then-President George W. Bush for including signing statements to circumvent specified aspects of laws passed by Congress.
Candidate Obama lectured a crowd at a high school in Billings, Mont., in May 2008 on “a government designed by the founders so that there’d be checks and balances.” The job of Congress is to pass legislation, Obama continued, and “the president can veto it or he can sign it.” Using signing statements to disagree with or reinterpret portions of Congress-approved laws is part of an “effort to accumulate more power in the presidency,” Obama argued. “This is part of the whole theory of George Bush that he can make laws as he’s going along,” Obama said then and pledged, “We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end-run around Congress.”
Once in the White House, Obama began issuing his own signing statements. And now chaplains are left to wonder if, despite a new law passed by Congress to protect them, they may be disciplined for refusing to perform a same-sex ceremony.