Last Monday, the Navy was the hero across America, for the exploits of its SEALs in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. This Monday, the sea service was zero in certain quarters for saying it will permit same-sex marriages within its hallowed chapels. It marks the first of what is likely to be many thunderclaps associated with the lifting of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on openly gay men and women serving in the U.S. military.
Navy officials said Monday night that they have no choice in the matter. Assuming the ban is lifted – it is slated to happen around the end of the year – the Navy believes it cannot legally bar same-sex weddings or civil unions from taking place in its facilities.
“Consistent with the tenets of his or her religious organization, a chaplain may officiate a same-sex, civil marriage: if it is conducted in accordance with a state that permits same-sex marriage or union; and if that chaplain is, according to the applicable state and local laws, otherwise fully certified to officiate that state’s marriages,” said Rear Admiral Mark Tidd, the Navy’s chief of chaplains, to his fellow chaplains in an April 13 memo.
But Tidd’s assessment – which, Navy officials said, was run up the mast for vetting by higher-ups before he issued it – clashes with 63 members of the House, led by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo. Akin is head of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which gives him substantial clout over the Navy. “The law of the land is that the federal government defines marriage as between one man and one woman,” Akin said Monday. “This new guidance from the Navy clearly violates the law.” He said it is “unbelievable that our Navy would issue guidance that clearly violates this law.”
Pentagon officials disagree, saying the Defense of Marriage Act does not bar chaplains from conducting religious ceremonies consistent with their beliefs. The Navy, Tidd said, “has concluded that, generally speaking, base facility use is sexual orientation neutral.” But the Pentagon has decided that it would not recognize same-sex unions – even if performed on a base where same-sex unions are legal – so long as the Defense of Marriage Act remains on the books.
As someone who has followed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate since well before it took effect in 1993: the nation, through the Congress, has spoken on the issue. Assuming certification by Pentagon leaders that military readiness will not be harmed by letting openly gay men and women serve – they can handle Osama bin Laden, but not gays? – “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will soon become history. Folks opposed to it can fight the change every inch of the way, but it seems clear the nation is ready to move on out, with gays in the ranks. The view from here is that it will only be as big a deal as opponents make it.