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WASHINGTON - Just in case you weren't sure, bestiality is still illegal in the U.S. military.

And, yes, that issue was actually in question this week. For the past few days, White House and Pentagon officials have fielded uncomfortable queries on whether they are working to decriminalize sex with animals as part of efforts to update the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In fact, Congress is poised to remove from the books the only specific reference to bestiality contained in the UCMJ. The obscure deletion, contained in the massive Defense Appropriations bill now being finalized, raised the ire of some conservative groups still outraged over the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law that allowed homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

For their part, Pentagon officials say the deletion of bestiality is a legal technicality and does not represent any fundamental change in the military's moral code for servicemembers (and service animals).

"The department's position on this issue remains unchanged and that act remains illegal," said defense spokesman Lt. Col Todd Breasseale.

The issue traces back to the 2004 Supreme Court case knocking down state anti-sodomy laws, a ruling which riled conservative groups. Despite that, anti-sodomy regulations remained in the UCMJ as officials worked to update sex crimes statutes.

Military officials have now asked Congress to drop the anti-sodomy language from the UCMJ. But that article of the military code doesn't just include humans, and that's where the confusion begins.

Article 125 actually states that any servicemember who "engages in unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same sex or opposite sex or with an animal is guilty of sodomy." Offenders face court-martial for any violations.

Cue various conservative groups and bloggers, who promptly attempted to link the recent "don't ask, don't tell" repeal with this apparent evidence that the military now accepts bestiality - a comparison that military officials this week blasted as false and offensive.

In a recent online post titled "Bestiality Should Give Leaders Paws," the Family Research Council called the sex with animals confusion proof that the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal was done too hastily.

Then, at a White House press briefing this week, Les Kinsolving, a correspondent for the conservative WorldNetDaily, asked White House spokesman Jay Carney: "Does the commander in chief approve or disapprove of bestiality in our armed forces?"

Carney laughed off the question and refused to answer, which in turn prompted a stinging rebuke from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"With respect, this is no laughing matter," wrote PETA spokesman Colleen O'Brien. "Animal abuse does not affect animals only - it is also a matter of public safety, as people who abuse animals very often go on to abuse human beings. I hope that in the future, you will address important issues with sensitivity and not dismiss them with a joke."

Lobbyists from the far left and far right don't often agree on much, but apparently sex with animals can bring them together.

But Breasseale said the whole controversy is off-base.

Even if Article 125 is removed, the UCMJ contains provisions under which troops can be punished. Article 134, for example, forbids "all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces" and "all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces." Breasseale said that would cover any and all animal abuse.

In fact, past instances of bestiality in the military have been prosecuted under that statute, instead of Article 125. The legal record dates back to 1957, when Pvt. Ricardo Sanchez was convicted of "an indecent act with an animal" under Article 134, even without specific wording prohibiting sex with animals.

In addition, before the potential language changes reached Congress, the Joint Service Committee on Military Justice drafted a list of punitive offenses under the UCMJ which specifically includes animal abuse. That is set to be included in the Manual for Courts-Martial, and will give clear guidance on what to do in such cases.

Breasseale said the change pending before Congress is truly just a legal clean-up effort, and will in no way endanger animals.

"It is difficult to envision a situation where a servicemember engages in sexual conduct with an animal that would not be conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline or service-discrediting," he said.

Twitter: @LeoShane


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