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House Holds Defense Bill Hostage to Social Prejudices

Marriage Amendment Has No Place in the National Defense Authorization Act

SOURCE: AP/Harry Hamburg

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) would rather see Congress fail to pass a defense authorization bill than pass one that allows military chaplains to perform marriages for same-sex couples.

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Last week, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced he would rather see Congress fail to pass a defense authorization bill than pass one that allows military chaplains to perform marriages for same-sex couples. Prioritizing a social agenda over the needs of our troops is the height of irresponsibility. Congress should pass a clean defense authorization bill, focusing on military issues, to ensure that our troops and their families get the support they need.

For 48 consecutive years, Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act to outline the budget for the Department of Defense. The NDAA is a critical piece of legislation in supporting the war effort and our men and women in uniform. The fiscal year 2012 NDAA, for example, authorizes funding for everything from troop pay to equipment like MRAPs, mine resistant vehicles designed to prevent casualties from roadside bombs. But this year, the House version of the bill also contains a discriminatory marriage ban targeting gay and lesbian service members, even after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Under current DoD policy, military chaplains have the freedom—but are not required—to perform marriages for same-sex couples where they are legal under state law and in accordance with their religious beliefs. In May, however, the House passed its version of the 2012 NDAA, which included an amendment barring military chaplains from performing marriages that do not comply with the definition of marriage in the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

Because DOMA defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, the House NDAA, if enacted, would prohibit military chaplains from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies. The amendment would also ban marriages involving same-sex couples on Defense Department property.

The Senate version of the NDAA, which has passed the Senate Armed Services Committee but awaits a vote by the full Senate, does not include the marriage ban, setting up a clash between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate.

The marriage amendment has nothing to do with national security. Instead, it injects the authorization bill with provisions that would restrict chaplains’ religious freedom to preside over wedding ceremonies in accordance with their faith.

It is imperative that social issues do not hold up the passage of a defense authorization bill. Fiscal year 2012 has already begun (the U.S. government’s fiscal year begins in October), yet the Defense Department still waits for congressional approval of its budget. In these times of fiscal austerity, the NDAA is even more essential in helping the Pentagon plan and manage its finances.

Further, the NDAA authorizes key initiatives to protect U.S. national security, our service members, and their families, including funding for:

  • Troop pay and bonuses, including death benefits for the families of military personnel
  • MRAPs and counter-IED (improvised explosive device) programs
  • Special operations
  • Afghanistan’s national security forces training
  • Programs to secure vulnerable fissile material

Congress has not failed to produce an authorization bill in nearly five decades. Failing to pass one now, over a discriminatory amendment no less, would break faith with our troops and their families and exacerbate the budget and management woes currently facing the Pentagon.

DOMA—which the Obama administration believes to be unconstitutional—already hampers our national security by denying the families of gay and lesbian troops access to many of the military’s benefits and support systems. Congress should not let social issues delay the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act as well. The House and Senate should promptly pass a defense-focused NDAA to ensure our troops get the support, equipment, and supplies they need.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Alex Rothman is a Special Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

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