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Right-Wingers Stoke Imaginary Controversy Over Navy Weddings

May 11, 2011 5:25 pm ET by Carlos Maza

Conservatives have used misleading arguments to cause the U.S. Navy to suspend an April 13 U.S. Navy policy guidance that would allow Navy chaplains to perform same-sex marriages on naval bases in states that have legalized marriage equality after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) is completed. 

After the guidance was announced, 64 House Republicans drafted a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus accusing the Navy of “operating as if [the Defense of Marriage Act] DOMA doesn’t exist” and thus violating 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, which is still the law of the land and binds our military, including chaplains.

That complaint has been echoed by a number of anti-gay groups including the Family Research Council (FRC) and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

During the May 11 edition of MSNBC News Live, FRC’s Peter Sprigg repeated the claim:

SPRIGG: The federal Defense of Marriage Act… declares that for all purposes under federal law, marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman. However individual states may define it is irrelevant for the purposes of federal law and the federal government. What’s shocking here is to have a federal employee, a federal official declaring that the federal government will no longer obey federal law. This law is binding. This controversy is not an issue of timing, it’s a question of obeying the law, and the Defense of Marriage Act is binding unless and until it is repealed. So I think that’s the fundamental issue here.

Anti-gay groups eventually created enough fuss to cause the Navy to suspend its guidance pending “additional legal and policy review.” House Republicans found the “ignoring DOMA” talking point to be both simple and effective.

It’s also highly misleading.

The Navy’s policy guidance declared that base facilities “may be used to celebrate” same-sex marriages, as long as the base was located in a state that recognized same-sex marriages:

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.


Regarding chaplain participation, consistent with the tenets of his or her religious organization, a chaplain may officiate a same-sex, civil marriage. [emphasis added]

The policy guidance deals with two central issues: (1) whether or not base facilities can be used to perform and celebrate same-sex weddings and (2) whether chaplains have a right to choose to officiate those wedding ceremonies.

Neither of these issues has anything to do with whether the federal government recognizes those marriages as valid under federal law, which is what DOMA relates to:

''Sec. 7. Definition of 'marriage' and 'spouse'

    ''In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.'' [1996 Defense of Marriage Act]

Allowing same-sex ceremonies to occur on naval bases is no more an endorsement of same-sex marriage than allowing baptisms to occur on those bases is an endorsement of Christianity. As Jonathan Hopkins of OutServe noted during the MSNBC interview:

The Defense of Marriage Act does not prohibit same-sex marriages, it just says the federal government doesn’t recognize them… To have the federal government ban, on military bases, certain types of marriage would be like having the federal government ban certain kinds of baptism or giving communion to certain people.

Hopkins’s assessment is in line with the Pentagon’s official position, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez:

DOMA does not limit the type of religious ceremonies a chaplain may perform in a chapel on a military installation. Chaplains are authorized to perform religious ceremonies consistent with the practices of the chaplain's faith group in chapels on military installations.

Igor Volsky at Think Progress confirmed the distinction between recognizing same-sex marriages and allowing them to be celebrated on Navy property:

Legal sources have told ThinkProgress that while DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, it does not prevent the government from providing benefits to same-sex 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.

In reality, the conservative backlash over the Navy’s policy guidance has a lot more to do with the Right’s visceral reaction to the idea of LGBT equality than it does with DOMA’s enforcement. For anti-gay conservatives, denying gay and lesbian couples access to more than one thousand federal marriage rights and benefits apparently isn’t enough.

Contrary to the hopes and dreams of anti-gay conservatives, however, DOMA is not a silver bullet that can be used to shut down any attempt to recognize that same-sex marriages even exist in America. Considering the lengths to which House Republicans have gone to defend DOMA in recent months, you’d think they would have a better idea of what the law actually does.


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