Under pressure from more than five dozen House lawmakers, the Navy late Tuesday abruptly reversed its decision that would have allowed chaplains to perform same-sex unions if the Pentagon decides to recognize openly gay military service later this year.
In a one-sentence memo obtained by The Associated Press, Rear Adm. Mark Tidd, chief of Navy chaplains, said his earlier decision has been "suspended until further notice pending additional legal and policy review and interdepartmental coordination."
The Navy said its lawyers wanted to do a more thorough review of the legal decision that allowed Navy chaplains to receive training to perform civil unions on military bases, but only in states where same-sex unions are legal.
Military training to apply the new law allowing gays to serve openly began earlier this year and is expected to be completed by midsummer.
House members wrote to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to object to the Navy's initial ruling, saying the service was violating the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act by appearing to recognize and support same-sex marriages.
That law defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, and it also says states don't have to recognize gay marriages performed in other states where they are legal.
"We find it unconscionable that the United States Navy, a federal entity sworn to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States, believes it is their place alone to train and direct service members to violate federal law," said the lawmakers' letter, which was signed by 63 House members.
The lawmakers asked Mabus to direct the Navy to defend the Constitution, adding that individuals should not be allowed to pick and choose the laws they will follow.
The Navy's decision triggered an uproar, particularly since the Army and Air Force had not made similar decisions, and there was no overall Defense Department guidance issued on the same-sex union issue.
Navy officials had said Monday that they updated the training after questions came up about civil ceremonies for gay couples.
In earlier training guidelines issued by the Defense Department and the military services, same-sex ceremonies were not mentioned and therefore not explicitly prohibited.
When first asked about the Navy's decision to allow the training, the Pentagon said the federal Defense of Marriage Act does not restrict the types of ceremonies a chaplain may perform in a chapel on a military base. And officials have repeatedly stressed that the military would not compel chaplains to perform a same-sex union if it was against their religious beliefs.
The military dust-up comes against the backdrop of the Obama administration's decision in February to no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time that President Barack Obama concluded that the law was unconstitutional.
The Pentagon has been moving carefully to implement the repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. Under the law passed and signed by the president in December, final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight.
Under the Navy's initial ruling, the civil union ceremonies would be allowed at military facilities such as chapel and catering centers, but only in states that already recognize same-sex unions.
And even if a same-sex union ceremony is performed, same-sex partners would not get any health, housing or other benefits that are provided to married couples involving a man and woman.
The Air Force and Army did not include discussion of same-sex union ceremonies in their training.
Under Pentagon guidelines, chaplains and other key military leaders were among the first tier of service members to be trained about the new law repealing the ban on openly gay service. Much of that instruction has been completed, so the Navy will send out updates to include the same-sex union ceremony provision.
Under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, service members face dismissal if they revealed they were gay.
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil