For a moment it looked as though the United States Navy would finally allow chaplains to perform same-sex sacramental wedding ceremonies, and in fact it reached this decision last week, but only a couple of days later decided to review this decision under pressure from U.S. Republicans, who argued that it would violate DOMA—the “Defense” of Marriage Act. But the problem with this attitude is that it blindly takes the law for granted, while also ignoring potential issues of religious freedom.
Originally, Rear Admiral M.L. Tidd, the chief Navy chaplain, released a memorandum stating that chaplains would have the right to officiate same-sex weddings in places where they are legal once the U.S. lifted its ban on gays serving openly in the military, but the memorandum was revoked when sixty-three right-wing, fundamentalist Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus protesting the decision. Consequently, the Defense Department and Navy attorneys decided upon the review. The reasoning behind the review, argued the Republicans, was that accommodating same-sex marriage using federal facilities or federal employees would directly violate DOMA, the federal ban on same-sex marriage.
The first problem is with the blind reliance on DOMA. By citing DOMA, opponents of Navy chaplains performing same-sex marriages are relying on a legal technicality to advance a mean-spirited and discriminatory practice. If federal law states that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, one might argue, the law should simply be changed. Just because a practice is legal does not mean that it is right or good—it means only that it happens to be sanctioned by lawmakers. Indeed, just a few months ago, this archaic and irrational law came under the scrutiny of U.S. president Barack Obama himself, who ordered the Department of Justice to stop defending it on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Thus, not only is a practice not necessarily right just because it is legal, but it might not even be legal in the first place.
The second problem relates to the issue of religious freedom. In some churches same-sex marriages are recognized and validated as equal to those of heterosexual marriages, thus, one might argue that, theoretically, by barring clergy members from blessing same-sex unions, the Defense Department is restricting the free exercise of religion for these chaplains, as well as the couple they seek to marry. If anything is illegal, it would be such a ban, since it would seem to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which aims to prevent any legislation which might curtail a person’s religious freedom.
The Navy’s vacillation on allowing chaplains to consecrate same-sex unions is certainly disheartening for those of us who believe in justice, but hopefully with President Obama’s injunction against defending DOMA, some initiative on the part of advocates, and some good, old-fashioned common-sense reasoning, the Navy will not reverse its decision, and the Defense Department will refrain from curtailing the religious freedoms of military chaplains. Who knows how the Army and Marine Corps will handle the issue in their own chaplaincies, but it only makes sense that if priests, ministers, and other clergy members be allowed to officiate same-sex unions in the Navy, they be allowed to do so in the other branches of the military as well.