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Full speed ahead

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls for ‘expeditious implementation’ of benefits to spouses of homosexual members of the military

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh (file)

Full speed ahead

WASHINGTON—The Pentagon on Wednesday announced plans to extend benefits to same-sex couples in the military starting on Sept. 3.

The move will extend healthcare, housing, and other benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages for both uniformed service members and civilian employees working for the Defense Department. The change was expected after the Supreme Court in late June ruled that the federal government could recognize homosexual marriages. The court’s decision declaring some elements of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional kick-started the Defense Department’s review of its benefit polices. Military officials concluded that DOMA is no longer applicable to the military. Pentagon said benefits would be extended regardless of sexual orientation “as long as service members provide a valid marriage certificate.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a memo to top military officials on Wednesday stating, “The Department will construe the words spouse and marriage to include same-sex spouses and marriages.” He called for “expeditious implementation” of this decision.

The decision mandates that same-sex couples’ claims for benefits, such as healthcare and housing, will be accepted dating from the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision that weakened DOMA. Entitlement claims predating the court ruling will be denied. The Pentagon also announced that same-sex couples stationed at bases in states where homosexual marriage is not allowed would be granted non-chargeable leave so they can travel to another state that permits same-sex marriage.

“This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department, and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

But Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the Pentagon’s decision to give up to 10 days leave to soldiers seeking a government-sanctioned same-sex marriage. Inhofe called the move “a benefit that offers preferential treatment to same-sex marriage over heterosexual marriage.” He doubted the Defense Department had the legal authority to grant such non-chargeable leave.

“Military leave is granted by statute, and while there are special provisions in law for adoptions, child birth and emergency situations, to my knowledge there are no special provisions for marriage, same-sex or otherwise,” Inhofe said in a statement. “As I have warned before, this administration is eroding our military’s historical apolitical stance by using it as their activism arm for their liberal social agenda.”

The Pentagon’s announcement will likely increase calls by conservative groups for Congress to pass enhanced religious liberty protections for service members. The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization representing more than 2,000 chaplains, is arguing that chaplains from conservative faith groups must be allowed to continue to minister with the convictions of that faith group.

“Chaplains have been protected by DOMA as they minister to service members and their families in a manner consistent with those sincerely held beliefs,” said Ron Crews, the executive director of the alliance and a retired chaplain, in a statement released after the Supreme Court’s decision in late June. “That freedom is now at significant risk.”

Since the Sept. 20, 2011 repeal of the military policy barring homosexuals from openly serving in the military, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty has reported that a senior chaplain was stripped of his authority over the chapel under his charge because he proclaimed it to be a sacred space where marriage ceremonies would only be between one man and one woman. The alliance also expressed concern in June 2012 over a same-sex ceremony conducted in a military chapel at Fort Polk, La. Louisiana is a state in which voters have approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

“Chaplains as well as all military personnel must be able to serve our nation without giving up their religious beliefs and convictions,” Crews said in his June statement.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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