A military chaplains’ advocacy group criticized President Barack Obama earlier this week for suggesting his administration might ignore provisions of a new law that offers religious liberty protections to service members.
The protections, approved by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, guarantee chaplains will not be forced to perform “marriage” ceremonies for same-sex couples or be punished for refusing to do so.
The president signed the act into law on Wednesday but issued a long statement detailing his disagreement with at least 20 of its provisions. The president said his administration would interpret those provisions as it saw fit, essentially announcing his intention to ignore them. He did not specifically say the Defense Department would not abide by the chaplain’s protection provision—Section 533—only it would not hinder the military’s acceptance of openly gay service members.
“Section 533 is an unnecessary and ill-advised provision, as the military already appropriately protects the freedom of conscience of chaplains and service members,” the president said. “The secretary of defense will ensure that the implementing regulations do not permit or condone discriminatory actions that compromise good order and discipline or otherwise violate military codes of conduct.
“My administration remains fully committed to continuing the successful implementation of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and to protecting the rights of gay and lesbian service members; Section 533 will not alter that.”
Based on President Obama’s statement, members of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CALL) still fear the government will force chaplains to take part in ceremonies that violate their beliefs.
“Chaplains should be able to stand by their faith traditions and honor their commitment to God’s Word,” said Chaplain Ron Crews, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, and CALL’s executive director. “That’s a freedom that Congress sought to protect, and the president is not at liberty to disregard the law.”
Several military chaplains already have received requests to perform same-sex “marriage” ceremonies. Section 533 simply protects them from discrimination for holding biblical views on sexuality, Crews said. Military chaplains should be allowed to serve without violating their beliefs, he added.
The president does not have the ability to veto parts of laws sent to him by Congress. He must either approve them or veto them in their entirety. But he can nullify some of a law’s provisions simply by ordering his administration to ignore them, a practice know as issuing “signing statements.”
During his first campaign in 2008, President Obama criticized then President George W. Bush for routinely using signing statements to ignore laws passed by Congress. He pledged then he would not use signing statements to circumvent congressional authority.