The Senate's 65-31 vote during the lame duck session capped a nearly year-long effort by the Obama administration to reverse the 17-year-old policy, which was adopted in 1993 as a compromise between conservatives and President Clinton, who wanted homosexuals to be able to serve openly but faced resistance from Congress and the Pentagon. As part of the '93 compromise, homosexuals would not have to disclose their sexuality on the front end -- as had been required -- although they would be required to keep their homosexuality secret while serving.
The U.S. military has never allowed open homosexuality.
Obama urged Congress during his January State of the Union address to reverse the policy, and the Pentagon studied the issue for 10 months before releasing a much-debated survey on the final day of November. Opponents of the current policy rushed to pass the bill during the lame duck session after Republicans -- most of whom supported the current policy -- made significant gains on Election Day. New legislators will be sworn in Jan. 4.
Obama has not said when he will sign the bill. The bill previously passed the House, 250-175.
"This is a very, very sad day for America," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press. "It is an honor and a privilege, not a right, to serve in our nation's military. There are multitudes of reasons why the military is the most respected national institution in American life. I have heard from privates and seamen all the way through generals and admirals that this will cause significant numbers of people to resign from the military -- in the middle of two wars."
Technically, the policy won't be repealed even when Obama signs the bill. A complete repeal will require certification by Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen that it won't harm the military. All three, though, supported the bill.
Democratic support carried the bill in both chambers. In the Senate, all 31 "no" votes came from Republicans, and eight Republicans joined 57 Democrats to support it. In the House, 235 Democrats and 15 Republicans voted for the bill, while 160 Republicans and 15 Democrats opposed it. (The Senate vote tally is available at http://ow.ly/3rnp9, the House tally at http://ow.ly/3pU6e.)
Religious liberty was at the forefront of conservatives' concerns. More than 60 retired chaplains had signed a letter to Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warning that a repeal 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 further 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."
Chaplain (Col.) Keith Travis, chaplain team leader for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, told Baptist Press after the Senate vote that "we intend to remain fully engaged with chaplaincy in the U.S. Military."
"Our primary concern is that our chaplains be allowed to counsel and teach using Scripture in its entirety," Travis said. "It will be interesting to see how the military will balance this new policy with religious freedom."
Already, Christian legal organizations, such as the Alliance Defense Fund, are pledging to defend any chaplains who encounter problems.
"No Americans, and especially not our troops, should be forced to abandon their religious beliefs," Alliance Defense Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg said in a statement. "We hope that our nation's leaders will work to ensure that none of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are ever made to choose between serving their country or obeying their God as result of this damaging policy decision. And ADF stands ready to defend service members if they are ever unconstitutionally required to make that choice."
The Pentagon's survey of military personnel found significant resistance to a repeal from those serving on the front lines. For example, among those in the Marine combat arms and Army combat arms, 57 percent and 47 percent, respectively, said having an openly homosexual person would negatively impact "how service members in your immediate unit work together to get the job done."
More than a third of Marines (38.1 percent) and nearly a fourth of all personnel (23.7) said they would either leave the military or think about doing so earlier than planned if the policy is reversed. That number jumped to 48 percent for Marines on the front lines.
Concerns among Marines are part of the reason Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, one of the four service chiefs on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that implementing a repeal during the current war environment could cost lives because it would serve as a distraction.
"Such findings should make it impossible for President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen to 'certify' that no harm will be done by implementation of their own plans for repeal," Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said in a statement. "The president's political promise to LGBT Left groups has been assigned highest priority, at the expense of Army and Marine combat troops whose voices were heard but ignored."
Privacy, too, was a concern, as a significant number of personnel expressed concern with sharing bathrooms, and open bay showers, with an openly homosexual person. Only 29 percent of all personnel said they would "take no action" if they found themselves in a similar situation.
The New York Times ran a story Dec. 20 that included interviews with Marines in training. "Many said that introducing the possibility of sexual tension into combat forces would be disruptive," the story said.
The day before the Senate vote, Land sent Obama a letter, urging the president to be guided by his Christian faith on the issue.
"We believe it to be contrary to Scripture to commend open homosexual relationships in general, including within the military ranks," Land's letter reads. "Our nation has moved from God in so many ways and we are deeply concerned that an increasingly affirming policy toward homosexual behavior will provide further impetus for God's judgment on our nation."
Land told Baptist Press that the conservative-leaning composition of the military will lead to resignations.
"The reality is that in America today, an all-volunteer military is significantly disproportionately from red-state America," Land said. "And the resignations from the military will be disproportionately from red-state America. So, quite rapidly the military will go from an organization in which homosexuals are underrepresented in ratio to a percentage of the population to an institution where they are overrepresented, which will only accelerate the rate of resignation. Legislators who voted for this disproportionately never served in the military. The opposition was led by legislators who have served."
The eight Senate Republicans who supported the bill were Sens. Olympia Snow and Susan Collins (each of Maine), Richard Burr (N.C.), John Ensign (Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Scott Brown (Mass.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and George Voinovich (Ohio). The retiring Voinovich is in his final days as a senator.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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