UPDATED SEPT. 30, 1:47 P.M. EDT
WASHINGTON — Starting immediately, chaplains can perform same-sex marriage and union ceremonies on U.S. military installations in locations where it doesn’t violate state or local laws, the Pentagon announced Friday.
The policy reversal follows on the heels of the repeal of the “don’t ask-don’t tell” law, Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, wrote in a memo to the military department secretaries and service chiefs.
“A military chaplain may participate in or officiate any private ceremony, whether on or off a military installation, provided that the ceremony is not prohibited by applicable state and local law,” he wrote.
The Pentagon had previously taken the position that same-sex ceremonies could occur once DADT was repealed. But in May, the department reversed itself and promised to study the issue further after a coalition of conservative lawmakers charged that the decision would violate the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The 1996 law defines marriage as existing between a man and a woman.
The Missouri Republican lawmaker who led the drive against the new policy, Rep. Todd Akin, said in a statement his office emailed to Stars and Stripes that the Defense Department was caving in to the Obama administration’s liberal social agenda.
“The use of federal property or federal employees to perform gay marriage ceremonies is a clear contravention of the law,” said Akin, a member of the House Armed Services committee.
But groups representing gay servicemembers said chaplains should be able to follow their consciences regarding same-sex unions.
“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 freedom to practice their religion as they see fit,” Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said in a statement on the group’s website.
Although it’s a core duty of military chaplains is to provide religious support — and in certain cases perform religious services — for troops with different beliefs from their own, chaplains won’t have to perform gay marriages if they don’t want to, Stanley wrote.
“[A] chaplain is not required to participate in or officiate a private ceremony if doing so would be in variance with the tenets of his or her religion or personal beliefs,” he wrote.
The head of a group set up to defend troops affected by the DADT law said the policy respects both personal freedom and religious belief.
“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,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
But the head of a group that opposed allowing gays to serve openly lashed the Pentagon for the new policy.
"It is outrageous that only ten days after repeal of the law against homosexuality in the Armed Forces, the Defense Department is already pushing the military further down the slippery slope,” Tony Perkins, Family Research Council President, said in a statement. “The repeal law passed by the lame-duck Congress last year said nothing about authorizing same-sex 'weddings' on military bases or by military chaplains.”
Currently, a majority of states do not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions.
But since the final repeal on Sept. 20 of the law that required gays in the military to hide their sexual orientation, gay troops have sought parity with straight married servicemembers in things like partner health benefits.
Stanley concluded the memo saying, “A military chaplain’s participation in a private ceremony does not constitute an endorsement of the ceremony by DOD.”