The number of same-sex weddings on military bases is expected to increase after last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say.
The overruling of DOMA guarantees same-sex partners federal marriage benefits, but it has no bearing on whether a marriage is legal, an issue still decided by the states.
Only 13 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota legalized gay marriage this year. California re-legalized gay marriage last month after the Supreme Court overruled Proposition 8.
Advocates for the LGBT community say same-sex couples feel more accepted on military bases because of the ruling, which will likely drive up the number of ceremonies performed on bases across the country.
“It makes sense to have ceremonies where you live and where your family is,” said David McKeon, legal and public policy director at OutServe-SLDN, Service Members’ Legal Defense Network, which serves the LGBT military community.
But Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said having to perform same-sex nuptials restricts military chaplains’ religious freedom. Across the country, he said, chaplains who are opposed to same-sex marriage have been forced to accept policies that mis-align with their religious values, violating their First Amendment rights.
“Clearly we are opposed to same-sex marriage, but if that is the law, that’s one thing,” he said. “But forcing others to abandon their moral religious beliefs and their conscious rights — that’s what we are fighting against.”
But Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said military chaplains “are 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.”
Perkins acknowledged that fact, but said there is concern that such protection might be taken away in the future.
In 2011 the military repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which prevented openly gay troops from serving. Shortly after, the Pentagon allowed gay marriages to be performed by military chaplains.
The House recently passed an amendment to its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill that seeks to protects the right of service members not only to hold religious beliefs but to act and speak openly about them. The amendment is sponsored by Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
According to the Pentagon, an estimated 5,600 active-duty troops and 3,400 National Guard and Reserve members are in same-sex marriages and relationships.
Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Defense Department will begin granting federal marriage benefits to all same-sex spouses of service members. This includes access to on-base commissaries and on-base housing, as well as military-provided health care and burial benefits.
Senior officers now must authorize these same-sex marriage benefits to their service members even if that goes against their religious beliefs, said Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.
“Those who are putting their lives on the line to protect the religious liberties of all Americans should not, themselves, have to give up these religious liberties they are willing to die for,” Crews said.
The suggestion that military chaplains will be forced to sacrifice their religious beliefs is simply a scare tactic, said Lauren Lamoly, director of communications at American Military Partner Association, a support network for LGBT military families.
“No one is going to want a chaplain to perform their marriage if they don’t want to,” said Lamoly, who is engaged to a service woman stationed in Tucson, Ariz.
Lamoly and her partner plan to obtain their marriage license in California but host a ceremony in her home state of Massachusetts. She said having the opportunity to marry on a military base means a lot to some couples, but she and her partner preferred to marry closer to family.
“What the DOMA ruling means is that as a government, who you love doesn’t matter,” she said.