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Congress threatens to overturn gays in military law

WASHINGTON (BP)–With the future of the military’s policy on homosexual service possibly being decided in Congress this week, conservative groups are hurriedly working to get their members to contact key legislators who may determine the future of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

It easily is the biggest threat to the law since it passed Congress with bipartisan support in 1993, and supporters say its repeal will hurt military readiness, cohesion, privacy, retention and recruitment, as well as the religious liberty of many conservative personnel and chaplains.

Congress and the White House reached a deal Monday whereby the House and Senate will vote on repealing the policy, although such a repeal would not go into effect until after the Pentagon completes a study in December on the issue. As part of the compromise President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen also would have to OK the policy’s repeal, although all three are on record as supporting a repeal.

Opponents of the policy are in a hurry to act because Democrats are expected to lose seats in November and opponents see their window of opportunity closing to reverse the law. The policy prohibits homosexuals from serving openly.

Conservatives Tuesday were pointing to a new Zogby poll which found that among likely voters, 59 percent said the decision on the policy “is best” made by the military. Twenty-three percent said Congress should make the decision. The poll was commissioned by the Family Research Council.

Both sides say the vote count is too close to call. The Senate Armed Services Committee, where Democrats hold a 16-12 edge, is expected to vote on the issue Thursday as an amendment to the defense spending bill. The full House, also controlled by Democrats, also could vote on it Thursday.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, urged constituents to contact their representative and senators.

“In short, overturning the current policy would strain our forces, weaken troop morale, and propel countless chaplains to leave the services,” Land wrote in an “action alert” e-mail. “Using our military to advance radical social policy is an affront to the greatness of our armed services.”

More than 40 chaplains representing several denominations signed a letter to Obama and Gates last month, saying that the careers of many if not most military chaplains will end if the policy is overturned, either because they leave voluntarily or are pressured out. The letter even said a change in policy could impact which biblical texts chaplains are allowed to preach. Military chaplains, the retired chaplains said, “are integral to maintaining high morale.”

“Marginalizing a large group of chaplains, then, will unavoidably harm readiness by diminishing morale,” the letter said. “Similarly, making orthodox Christians — both chaplains and servicemen — into second-class Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines whose sincerely held religious beliefs are comparable to racism cannot help recruitment or retention.”

The law’s future could come down to Thursday’s vote in the Senate committee. At least four Democrats there are considered swing votes: Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Jim Webb (Va.). Webb has said he thinks Congress should wait until the study is complete. At least one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), signaled through her spokesperson she would vote to repeal the law. Another Republican, Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), said he would vote against a repeal.

Despite the stances of Gates and Mullen, at least half of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have expressed concern about repealing the policy.

The Pentagon in March began a 10-month review of the law to study, in Gates’ words, “all issues and potential impacts associated with repeal of the law.” The review supposedly is obtaining the views of military personnel and their family members.

Supporters of the law say congressional action would render the review meaningless.

“What this process is saying to [military personnel] is that their views, concerns, insights and perspectives do not matter,” retired Marine General John Sheehan said in a conference call with the media Tuesday. The call was sponsored by the Family Research Council.

FRC President Tony Perkins, a former Marine, agreed.

“This is a political charade that’s taking place here, and the American people should be outraged that the president and his political appointee are standing in place of the military leaders,” Perkins said. ” … By short-circuiting a process that the president himself put in place … [it] is only going to fuel more political unrest in this country.”

Gates last month even opposed a quick repeal and told House members that repealing the law before the review is complete “would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns, and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families.” On Tuesday a spokesperson said Gates “continues to believe that ideally the DOD review should be completed before there is any legislation.”

The 1993 law passed by Congress mentioned privacy concerns as one reason homosexuals should not be permitted to serve openly. It said “there is no constitutional right to serve in the armed forces” and that the policy is necessary because “living conditions and working conditions” in the military — particularly in combat — “are often spartan, primitive, and characterized by forced intimacy with little or no privacy.” It further said, “The prohibition against homosexual conduct is a longstanding element of military law that continues to be necessary in the unique circumstances of military service.”

Said Perkins, “Most members of Congress have not served in the military and most of the public has not either. They have a hard time understanding the environment. When I was in the Marine Corps there were 60 of us in a squad bay. You shower together. That’s a problematic environment” if the policy is changed to allow homosexuals to serve openly.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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