WASHINGTON — The Navy has reversed its decision to permit chaplains to preside at same-sex “marriages” in military chapels, after strong protests from Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The military’s abrupt reversal last week underscored the political minefield created by the combined effect of the phased-out repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Obama administration’s decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex “marriage.”

Fearing that the Navy’s accommodation of same-sex “marriage” would set a precedent for future challenges to DOMA and create conscience issues for chaplains who opposed this practice, 63 House Republicans signed a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in early May, demanding a reversal of the policy. The House members contended that “offering up federal facilities and federal employees for same-sex marriages” collided with the Defense of Marriage Act.

A few days later, on May 10, the Navy secretary backed off, but House committees still acted to approve two Republican-backed amendments designed to block any future introduction of same-sex “marriage” on military bases and to clarify that the armed forces fall under DOMA’s provisions.

“This amendment leaves no doubt as to the position of our United States Armed Forces regarding marriage, as recognized by federal law,” said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee and the sponsor of one amendment. “Under federal law and this amendment, U.S. military bases may not be used to solemnize same-sex unions, nor may military chaplains perform these unions in the course of their official duties, and the definition of marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Temporary Victory?

The Archdiocese for the Military Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not issue any statements regarding the Navy’s initial instruction, the reversal of that policy or the subsequent passage of the House amendments. A USCCB spokesman confirmed that the conference has not issued any statement regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Msgr. Frank Pugliese, vicar general of the Military Services Archdiocese, declined to comment on these issues. But he noted that a June 2010 statement issued by Archbishop Timothy Broglio “was very clear about the issue of repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and about some of the possible ‘next steps’ to that repeal.”

In that statement, Archbishop Broglio restated Catholic teaching on same-sex “marriage,” the requirements of human dignity for all persons, irrespective of sexual orientation, and the right to religious freedom for chaplains.

The archbishop confirmed that “unions between individuals of the same gender resembling marriage will not be accepted or blessed by Catholic chaplains. Furthermore, no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted.”

The statement underscored the potential threat to religious freedom posed by the repeal of the Clinton-era policy that allowed homosexuals to serve in the military if they did not publicly discuss their sexual orientation.

Catholic chaplains, said the archbishop, “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior. A change might have a negative effect on the role of the chaplain not only in the pulpit, but also in the classroom, in the barracks and in the office.”

In April, Rear Adm. Mark Tidd, the chief of Navy chaplains, signaled that the phasing out of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had prompted a reassessment of chaplain training on same-sex “marriage.”

“Regarding the use of base facilities for same-sex marriages, legal counsel has concluded that, generally speaking, base facility use is sexual orientation-neutral,” said Tidd in an April memo. “This is a change to previous training that stated same-sex marriages are not authorized on federal property.”

Congressman Akin spearheaded the GOP effort to block the new policy, as outlined in that memo:

“The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. The law of the land is that the federal government defines marriage as between one man and one woman. This new guidance from the Navy clearly violates the law. While our president may not like this law, it is unbelievable that our Navy would issue guidance that clearly violates this law. While a state may legalize same-sex marriage, federal property and federal employees, like Navy chaplains, should not be used to perform marriages that are not recognized by federal law,” the letter stated.
“My colleagues and I are calling on the secretary of the Navy to make sure that the Navy actually follows the law. As we state in the letter, ‘It is not the place of any citizen of this country to pick and choose which laws they are going to obey. We expect citizens sworn to defend those laws to set the example in their application.’”

Last week, Tidd suspended the preliminary guidelines, “pending additional legal and policy review.” The Navy has also received heat for its decision to move ahead of the other services, which have yet to issue any formal training guidelines.

Opponents of same-sex “marriage” claimed victory, but that accomplishment remains tenuous. “The Navy retreated, but they didn’t surrender. They said they’d review the policy,” noted Tom McClusky, senior vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, which strongly opposed the Navy’s move.

Said Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, “Well, I guess it’s great when our military follows the law. Military bases are federal property, and DOMA, whether you like it or not, applies.”

President Obama signed legislation repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in late December, and just two months later, the White House announced that the president instructed the Justice Department to no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.