WASHINGTON — The Defense Department issued new guidelines Friday that allow military chaplains to officiate at same-sex weddings, on or off military installations, in states where such weddings are allowed.
No chaplain is required to participate in a same-sex wedding, if it violates personal or religious beliefs, the Pentagon said. Because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriages, the department wouldn't endorse them, it added.
"The guidance issued today strikes the right balance between respecting the faith traditions of chaplains and affording all service members the same rights under current law," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights organization.
The Pentagon is treading carefully around the unsettled issue as it transitions away from the long-standing prohibition against gay service members openly declaring their sexuality.
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Although "don't ask, don't tell" is now history, some Republican members of Congress want the Pentagon to prohibit same-sex weddings, and the House Armed Services Committee passed amendments to the 2012 defense appropriations bill last year that are intended to require that.
One by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would ban military chaplains and Pentagon employees from participating in same-sex weddings and would prohibit the use of military installations for such purposes. The Democratic-majority Senate has yet to consider the legislation.
Six states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage. The Obama Justice Department has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and President Obama has called for its repeal.
For gay and lesbian service members, the end of "don't ask, don't" presents a new challenge: gaining for same-sex couples the same housing, medical and family support benefits that are available to opposite-sex couples. Federal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice currently prevent that.
"Same work, same risk, same sacrifice equals same pay and benefits," Sarvis said. "Now that's not going to be true for legally married gay and lesbian service members. And it's an inequity that service members are going to complain about, and I believe their commanders in the field will be receptive when the troops point out this inequity."
"Just on the face of it, you'd think there would be an equal protection claim there," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a co-sponsor of legislation to repeal the federal law.