Last week, the Marines made it clear that its spouses’ clubs could not discriminate against same-sex couples.
Wednesday, the Army said: not so fast.
As things stand now, the Army, backed by the Pentagon, is saying it will not bar recognition of spouses’ clubs that prohibit same-sex couples from membership.
This all began awhile back at Fort Bragg, N.C., after the Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses denied Ashley Broadway membership, even though she is married to Army Lieutenant Colonel Heather Mack. Broadway says she is “extremely disappointed” by the decision. “With this move, the Defense Department and the Pentagon have opened the door to discrimination of any soldier, and these soldiers’ families, for any reason,” she says. “The government of the greatest nation in the world should not be entertaining or tolerating this, and should not allow exclusionary groups to operate on any military installation.”
The Marines, sniffing change in the air, issued orders last week saying that such discrimination against same-sex couples would lead the corps to deny such clubs any support from the corps. “We would interpret a spouse’s club’s decision to exclude a same-sex spouse as sexual discrimination,” the corps’ top lawyer wrote.
The Army, typically, sees it just the opposite. “The Association of the Bragg Officers’ Spouses, a private organization, is not in violation of current Department of Defense instructions, directives, and laws,” says Ben Abel, a Fort Bragg spokesman.
When Abel is asked to square the Army decision with the Marine’s, he says only that “we are responsible for the welfare of soldiers and their families at Fort Bragg.”
The corps interprets Marine guidance as saying that same-sex couples must be recognized by such clubs if such clubs are to continue to receive corps’ benefits (such as holding meetings on corps’ installations). The corps’ lawyer says the language bars “unlawful discrimination,” which means the corps “would interpret” that language to bar discrimination against same-sex couples.
Here’s the Pentagon’s 2008 guidance the Arny is relying on, which the service says dictates just the reverse:
No person because of race, color, creed, sex, age, disability, or national origin shall be unlawfully denied membership, unlawfully excluded from participation, or otherwise subjected to unlawful discrimination by any non-Federal entity or other private organization covered by this Instruction.
It too has that all-important “otherwise” caveat in there. But the Army says that’s not broad enough to ban spouses’ clubs from barring same-sex couples. The Pentagon, which championed the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military, concurs.
There’s no mention in the guidelines of sexual orientation, which isn’t surprising – they were written three years before the Pentagon lifted its gay ban. Defense officials say they simply are complying with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which says marriage can only be between a woman and a man, and has let the Pentagon deny benefits to same-sex spouses that traditional spouses get.
This all boils down to three things:
— The Marines were the service most opposed to ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But once they realized it was going to change, they saluted, got out in front of it, and have pushed hard to turn the same-sex issue into a non-issue in its ranks. They were the more agile – Marines would prefer “expeditionary” – force in dealing with a change that many thought would be significant, but really hasn’t been.
— The Army is the most traditional of the military services, and the one that plods, in ways both good and bad. If it can find a regulation justifying the status quo, it will embrace it tightly. This should come as no surprise: this is how the Army fights, this is how it wages peace, and this is how it lives.
— The key unknown is how prospective defense secretary Chuck Hagel will deal with the matter. He upset gay activists by opposing a gay ambassador a decade ago, and has since apologized. “I fully support the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and value the service of all those who fight for our country,” Hagel recently wrote Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “I know firsthand the profound sacrifice our service members and their families make, and if confirmed as Secretary of Defense, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
The contrast between the Army and Marines could dissolve overnight if a Defense Secretary Hagel issued orders detailing how all the services should deal with the matter.
Look for it to melt, like winter ice, before summer.
UPDATE: The spouses’ club said it “would like to offer Ms. Broadway a special Guest Membership” on Thursday. “It’s fantastic that they have finally contacted Ashley after a month of silence, but if the ABOS mission is to support all military families, why are they continuing to deny same-sex military spouses full membership?” responded Stephen L. Peters II, president of the American Military Partner Association. “Offering `guest membership’ to Ashley is like offering her `second-class membership status.’ There is no valid reason why she should not be offered full membership as outlined in the organization’s bylaws.”