WASHINGTON (BP)--U.S. Navy chaplains have received authorization to perform "same-sex marriage" ceremonies on base when the ban on open homosexuality in the military is canceled, prompting charges the change in policy violates the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Enforcement of the policy -- and an additional directive by the Navy -- could compel evangelical Christians to abandon the military chaplaincy if it is enforced, a critic charged.

Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Mark Tidd issued an April 13 memo giving permission to the Navy's chaplains to conduct marriage and civil union ceremonies for homosexual couples, the Navy Times reported May 9. Tidd's memo said chaplains may participate in such ceremonies in states where same-sex unions are allowed. He also said naval base facilities "may normally be used to celebrate the marriage" if the base is in a state that has legalized "same-sex marriage."

The new policy for Navy chaplains awaits certification by President Obama, as well as by the secretary of defense and the chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, that lifting the prohibition on open homosexuality will not harm the military. In December Obama signed a repeal of the 1993 law that has been referred to as Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but the repeal has not been implemented.

More than 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives complained to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus after Tidd's memo was revealed. Led by Rep. Todd Akin, R.-Mo., the representatives said they "find it difficult to understand how the military is somehow exempt from abiding by" the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

DOMA, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, defines marriage in federal law as being between a man and a woman and empowers states to refuse to recognize another state's "gay marriages."

"Offering up federal facilities and federal employees for same-sex marriages violates DOMA, which is still the law of the land and binds our military, including chaplains," the 63 House members told Mabus in a May 6 letter.

"It is not the place of any citizen of this country to pick and choose which laws they are going to obey," the representatives said. "We expect citizens sworn to defend those laws to set the example in their application."

Akin said in a statement released May 9 with the letter, "While a state may legalize same-sex marriage, federal property and federal employees, like Navy chaplains, should not be used to perform marriages that are not recognized by federal law."

The Department of Defense (DOD) denied the new guidelines for Navy chaplains violate DOMA.

"DOMA does not limit the type of religious ceremonies a chaplain may perform in a chapel on a military installation," DOD spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said, according to the Navy Times. "Chaplains are authorized to perform religious ceremonies consistent with the practices of the chaplain's faith group in chapels on military installations."

Chaplains will not be required to perform "gay marriages," a Navy spokeswoman told the Navy Times.

A critic of the policy change said the Navy made things worse when it responded to Akin's complaint.

"As if opening up the base facilities to gay 'marriage' wasn't illegal enough, the corps now insists that chaplains who refuse to marry homosexuals have to find someone who would," Tony Perkins, Family Research Council's president wrote May 9. Perkins cited a Navy statement, which he said included: "If the chaplain declines to personally perform the service, then the chaplain MUST facilitate the request...."

Perkins said, "That's a big leap from simply allowing the ceremonies to take place. As much as the weddings violate DOMA, the referral order is a direct assault on the freedom of conscience. And it it's enforced, it could be what drives evangelical chaplains out of the military altogether."

So far, the Air Force and Army have not followed the Navy's example in issuing such guidelines for its chaplains, the Associated Press reported.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell was approved as a compromise between conservatives and Clinton, whose effort to lift the longtime military ban was resisted by Congress and the Pentagon. Don't Ask, Don't Tell barred homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibited military commanders from asking service members if they are homosexual or about their "sexual orientation."

Critics of the new law terminating Don't Ask, Don't Tell have warned it will result in infringements on religious liberty, as well as harm to the readiness, privacy and retention of service members.

Before Obama signed the measure last year, more than 60 retired chaplains sent a letter to the president and secretary of defense warning that a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell would marginalize "deeply held" religious beliefs of military personnel and present a conflict when some chaplains, while preaching, "present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral." They warned that changing the policy could influence chaplains not only in what they could preach but in what they could say in a counseling session. A repeal, the letter said, would harm morale because it would be casting "the sincerely held religious beliefs of many chaplains and Service members as rank bigotry comparable to racism."

Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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