Pentagon: Chaplains May Officiate Over Same-Sex Weddings

Author: Chris Johnson
Publication: Washington Blade
Publication Date: September 30th, 2011

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The Pentagon issued on Friday guidance clarifying that military chaplains are allowed to officiate over same-sex marriages and base facilities can be used for same-sex weddings in states where such unions are legal.

In two separate memos to the military services, top Pentagon officials specify that such actions are possible in the wake of the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

In one memo dated Sept. 30, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness Clifford Stanley writes military chaplains “may participate or officiate any private ceremony” provided such ceremonies aren’t prohibited by local or state law.

The guidance further clarifies chaplains are “not required” to participate in a private ceremony if doing so is contrary to their religious beliefs. Additionally, the guidance says a chaplain’s participation in such ceremonies doesn’t constitute an endorsement of the ceremony by the Pentagon.

In another memo dated Sept. 21, Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson says the determination of using a military base facility for private functions should be made on “a sexual-orientation neutral basis” as long as such use isn’t prohibited by local or state laws.

Johnson writes these ceremonies won’t be official activities of the Pentagon, nor does the act of making base facilities available to these functions constitute an endorsement by the Defense Department.

Neither memo explicitly mentions same-sex marriage. However, the Pentagon is promulgating them in the wake of controversy over a Navy memo issued in April affirming that chaplains could officiate at same-sex weddings and base facilities could be used for that purpose in states that have marriage equality.

After an outcry from social conservatives, that Navy memo was rescinded, and the Pentagon said it would reissue the guidance at a later time.

LGBT advocates hailed the Friday memos from the Pentagon as the affirmation of gay service members’ right to marry

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the guidance “strikes the right balance” between allowing gay service members to marry and the respect for religious beliefs.

“We are pleased the Department of Defense has made it clear that a military Chaplain is allowed to perform any lawful ceremony that is consistent with his or her beliefs and is not required to perform a ceremony that is inconsistent with those beliefs,” Sarvis said. “We are also pleased that access to military facilities will be granted on a sexual-orientation-neutral basis.”

Sarvis continued, “The guidance issued today strikes the right balance between respecting the faith traditions of chaplains and affording all service members the same rights under current law. This is another logical step in the direction of full equality for gay and lesbian service members, and we hope the Department will continue to move down that path.”

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said the memos reflect the “basic constitutional rights and respect for marriage” that he said is deserved by all people, including service members.

“Discrimination has no place in the military, or in marriage, and of course people, gay or non-gay, should be able to celebrate their love and commitment in ceremonies without interference by the government,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson continued, “In the months ahead, Americans will see gay service-members getting married, surrounded by loved ones, and will get an even better understanding of how the freedom to marry helps families while hurting no one, increasing support for an end to marriage discrimination.”

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemember United, also said the change is appropriate in the wake of the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Now that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is gone, there is nothing prohibiting chaplains whose denominations do not discriminate from treating same-sex couples equally in accordance with state and local laws,” Nicholson said. “There are many chaplains in the military who simply do not believe that gay and lesbian servicemembers are second-class citizens, and those chaplains should have the freeom to practice their religion as they see fit, including officiating at ceremonies that their denominations recognize.”