Defense & National Security

Amendments to protect chaplains’ conscience rights sparks controversy and debate

The Defense funding bill that will get a house vote later this week includes provisions that would protect conscience rights for military chaplains and prohibit same-sex marriage ceremonies from being performed on U.S. military bases.

Amendments to the Fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act authored by House Armed Services Committee members Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Todd Akin (R-Mo.) for that purpose were approved in committee last week, but not without a fight. The provisions continued to be a source of controversy as debate on the bill began on the House floor Wednesday.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) said the amendment only served to “distract from the wonderful work we have done” on the defense bill.

She said chaplains’ rights were already protected under current statute and that gay marriage ceremonies on military installations were not prohibited under the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, even though DOMA has been clearly interpreted by the military to bar any formal recognition of service member same-sex marriages, including married housing and benefits.

Palazzo said his amendment would eliminate the inconsistency.

“The Defense of Marriage Act was clear in defining marriage for purposes of the federal government,” he said in a statement. “This amendment does nothing else but clarify for the Department of Defense that this standard should be upheld on military bases.”  

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) also jumped into the fray, chiding Republicans for using NDAA to “push political wedge issues.”
Akin and Palazzo authored their amendments in response to reports from chaplains and chaplains’ endorsing agencies that they were facing pressure from peers and superiors to stay silent about religious beliefs regarding homosexual behavior.

After Akin’s bill passed out of committee by a vote of 36-25, he said the vote was a victory over President Obama’s attempts to “use the military as a campaign prop to advance the liberal agenda.”

“Whatever Obama’s views may be, I find it appalling that he would so blatantly use the military for political cover on this controversial issue,” he said. “Our sons and daughters don’t volunteer for the military to be used to promote a political agenda.”

The American Archdiocese for the Military Services also promoted the proposal last week, sending a letter to HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) expressing concern that Catholic chaplains were being muzzled in their teaching and would be required to facilitate pre-marriage programs for same-sex couples, such as the Army’s Strong Bonds program, against their principles.

“As the only Catholic diocese charged with the pastoral care of Catholics in the United States military, I believe that this amendment will help to ensure the religious freedoms of all members of the service to worship freely and without fear of government interference or retribution,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio wrote.

The full NDAA, including the amendment, is expected to get a House vote on Friday.

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