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Religious Tolerance logo

2011-APR-MAY: Allowing military chaplains to
conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies

1. Background. Ceremonies temporarily allowed.
Republican House Representatives complain.

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We use the acronym "SSM" throughout this section to represent "same-sex marriage"
"LGB" refers to lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.
"DOMA" refers to the Defense of Marriage Act

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Background of the status of LGB service members:

Prior to 1993, lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) service members could only survive in the military if they remained deeply in "the closet" and hid their sexual orientation from everyone -- particularly from  investigating teams charged with hunting down LGB service members.

In 1993, President Clinton signed a bill into law creating the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy. This allowed LGB members to serve, as long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation to others. Meanwhile, the military chain of command was not supposed to inquire about a service member's sexual orientation.

By the end of 2010, the U.S. was almost alone among developed countries in maintaining such a policy. At least 25 countries allowed lesbians, gays, and bisexuals to serve openly in their armed forces. This includes essentially all NATO countries including Britain and Canada as well as Israel, according to the Palm Center -- a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 1

In 2010-DEC, a DADT repeal bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. It set up a process by which the DADT policy could be terminated. Leon Panetta, the Defense Secretary, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with President Obama on 2011-JUL-22. All three certified that DADT could be ended without adverse affects on the military. This ended the DADT policy on 2011-SEP-20.

Those servicemembers who came out of the closet and went public with their sexual orientation on and after this date are taking a risk. Several Republican candidates for the presidency in 2012 have included a renewal of the DADT policy as a high priority in their platforms. There is little doubt that an attempt would be made to reactivate the DADT policy if the Republican party were to capture the presidency, House, and Senate in 2012, even though a very substantial majority of American adults oppose the DADT policy.

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2011-APR-13: Chief of Navy Chaplains approves same-sex marriages on military bases:

On APR-13, Mark L. Tidd, Chief of Navy Chaplains, issued a letter titled: "Revision of Chaplain Corps Tier 1 Training." It authorized chaplains to conduct same-sex marriages on military property. It stated, in part:

"Regarding the use of base facilities for same-sex marriages, legal counsel has concluded that generally speaking, base facility use is sexual orientation neutral. If the base is located in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, then base facilities may normally be used to celebrate the marriage. This is true for purely religious services (e.g. a chaplain blessing a union) or a traditional wedding (e.g. a chaplain both blessing and conducting the ceremony). ... This is a change to previous training that stated same-sex marriage are not authorized on federal property."

"Regarding chaplain participation, 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 the laws of a state which permits same-sex marriages or union; [sic] and if the chaplain is, according to applicable state and local laws, otherwise fully certified to officiate that state's marriages." 1

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2011-MAY-10: Coral Ridge Ministries raises alert about SSM on military bases: 2

Coral Ridge Ministries (CRM) in Fort Lauderdale, FL is the action arm of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a fundamentalist Christian congregation. The Southern Poverty Law Center listed them as part of a hard core of 18 American anti-gay groups:

"... most of them religiously motivated, [who] have continued to pump out demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities. These groups’ influence reaches far beyond what their size would suggest, because the 'facts' they disseminate about homosexuality are often amplified by certain politicians, other groups and even news organizations. 3

CRM is now called "Truth in Action" (TIA).

On 2011-MAY-10, Jennifer Cassidy issued an Emailed "emergency alert" concerning the Chief of Navy Chaplains' memorandum described above. She expressed alarm, saying that:

"[W]e find it unconscionable that the United States Navy, a federal entity sworn to 'preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States,' believes it is their place alone to train and direct servicemembers to violate federal law. ..." 2

The federal law to which she referred is the Defense of Marriage Act.

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2011-MAY-10: Republican representatives in House issue a letter of protest:

On the same day as the CRM Email, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) joined with 63 other members of the Republican House caucus to send a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. It said in part:

"[I]t appears that the United States Navy is preparing and training its chaplains to defy federal statute [sic] and ignore the provisions placed within the Defense of Marriage Act ...

We find it difficult to understand how the military is somehow exempt from abiding by federal law. Not only does this document imply recognition and support of same-sex marriage in opposition to DOMA, but it also implies that the Navy will now perform these marriages so long as they do not violate state statutes. [...]

Offering up federal facilities and federal employees for same-sex marriages violates DOMA. ... the Navy and Marine Corps and all the Armed Services [sic] are sworn to obey the law, which this new instruction violates.

Therefore Mr. Secretary we find it unconscionable that the United States Navy, a federal entity sworn to ‘preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States’ believes it is their place alone to train and direct servicemembers to violate federal law….

[W]e agree with the vast majority of the American people that the preservation of marriage is critical to society’s stability and is in the best interest of the American families." 4

Their last sentence is something that everyone can agree on. Marriage is one of the basic building blocks of any society. Both spouses and their children need the protections and benefits that state and federal governments provide to families.

The point of disagreement is the definition of marriage: whether it should be a special privilege given only to heterosexuals, or whether it should be offered to all loving, committed couples, including same-sex couples. A growing majority of American adults now favor the latter arrangement, as do the government of the District of Columbia, and a growing number of states.

According to, a LGBT-positive group:

"Akin has promised to offer an amendment prohibiting the practice, but the Pentagon insists that DOMA "... does not limit the type of religious ceremonies a chaplain may perform in a chapel on a military installation," and explained that while the marriages could be performed in the five states that recognize them, the Defense Department would "not recognize those unions as valid marriages" under DOMA.

Indeed, while DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, it does prevent the government from providing benefits to same-sex [married] couples. Therefore, if the law allows Navy facilities to be used for recreational purposes — like celebrating family or 'personal use as deemed appropriate by the base commander' — but does not use the word marriage, DOMA would not prevents the federal government from letting couples celebrate their marriage on Navy property." 5

DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that have been solemnized in the District of Columbia or in a state where such marriages are legal. That is, the record of a same-sex marriage is not worth the paper it is printed on, as far as the federal government is concerned. The married spouses are regarded as roommates -- as "legal strangers" to each other.

We agree with ThinkProgress.ord that DOMA in no way prohibits a chaplain from conducting a marriage ceremony. DOMA defines the relationships between the federal government and same-sex couples who have been married and who have had their marriages registered. When a service member arranges a chaplain to conduct a marriage, the couple has not been married, and so DOMA would not apply. It is our understanding that it is only when a couple's marriage has been registered that DOMA kicks in. By that time, the chaplain, wedding party, and guests have left the site to pursue other interests.

Of course, if the military supplied health insurance coverage to the non-military spouse, or subsidized housing for the married couple, or provided health care to the couple's children, this would be treating the married couple like any other married military couple. It is the express purpose of DOMA to forbid such equal treatment by the federal government. It would be a direct violation of DOMA.

Another way to view the conflict is to imagine a service member asking a chaplain to perform a baptism on his child, or to bless his model train layout to reduce derailments. The federal government recognizes neither baptisms nor train blessings. They do not give special grants or privileges to the child or to trains. As far as the feds are concerned, a same-sex marriage ceremony is not recognized as such; it has the status of a bingo or a social gathering of a military unit.

That said, for about five months after the Navy declaration, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy of the military was still in force. Making civil unions and same-sex marriages available on base might be interpreted as an enticement to lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers to reveal their sexual orientation. This would not be allowed under the "Don't Ask" component of DADT.

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This topic is continued in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Revision of Chaplain Corps Tier 1 training," Chief of Navy Chaplains, 2011-APR-13, at:
  2. J.K. Cassidy, "Navy Gives Green Light to Homosexual Marriage! Urge Congress to Act!," Email, Coral Ridge Ministries, 2011-MAY-10.
  3. Evelyn Schlatter, "18 anti-gay groups and their propaganda," Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, Winter 2010, Issue 140, at:
  4. Letter to Ray Mabis, Secretary of the Navy, 2011-MAY-06, at:
  5. Igor Volsky, "Republicans Protest Navy’s Decision To Allow Same-Sex Marriages On Navy Bases," ThinkProgress, 2011-MAY-10, at:

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Copyright © 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-OCT-31
Author: B.A. Robinson
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