WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States military could be on the verge of allowing open homosexuality for the first time if the Senate passes a bill this weekend overturning the prohibition on such behavior.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., announced Thursday that the body would hold a key procedural vote Saturday on a stand-alone bill that would repeal what is commonly referred to as the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. If supporters of repeal get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, then debate on the bill itself would begin and a final vote could take place Saturday or Sunday. It would need only a simple majority to pass on a final vote.
Passage of the bill would be a landmark victory for homosexual groups. The bill already has passed the House, and President Obama has pledged to sign it.
Conservative hopes for a GOP filibuster hinge on four Republican senators who already have announced they support a repeal of the policy. The question is whether they will support a filibuster on other grounds. Those four are Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. When the GOP successfully filibustered a defense bill earlier this month that had a repeal attached to it, only Collins voted with the Democrats. Even then, Collins said Reid was not allowing enough time for debate.
But repeal advocates already may be close to 60 votes. According to Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, Collins, Brown and Murkowski are expected to join 57 of the 58 senators who caucus with Democrats to oppose a filibuster. The only Democrat who voted with the GOP last time was Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is having prostate cancer surgery next week but his spokesperson told the Post he would attend Saturday’s vote.
There could be hang-ups, though, for repeal advocates. Talking Points Memo, a liberal website, reported Friday that Sen. Kent Conrad (D.-N.D.) has not pledged to support the repeal. Conrad’s lack of support would mean only 56 Democrats back a repeal.
With the vote expected to be close, conservative groups Friday urged their constituents to call senators and urge a “no” vote on what is called cloture on the bill. Sixty votes on cloture are required to overcome the filibuster. (The capitol switchboard number is 202-224-3121.)
Meanwhile, Family Research Council Action is pledging to endorse and fund conservative primary challengers to any senator who votes for the bill. The letter presumably is aimed at Republicans and conservative Democrats.
“As three of the four service chiefs have made clear, the men and women of the Armed Forces who are engaged in fighting two wars should not be distracted by Congress using them to advance a liberal social agenda,” FRC Action PAC President Connie Mackey said in a statement. “Using the Senate’s time in the lame-duck session to pay back his liberal political base is simply absurd and demonstrates once again Senator Reid’s misplaced priorities. Members of the Senate should refuse to become accomplices in helping Harry Reid advance his agenda over the American people’s agenda,” concluded Mackey.”
Conservatives received bad news Friday when it was learned that Reid will not allow any amendments to the bill, according to Politico.com. One amendment that could slow or kill a repeal would require the four service chiefs — some of whom oppose repeal — to give their OK before the law is reversed. As it stands now, the bill only requires President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen to certify a repeal. All three oppose the current policy. The service chiefs are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Supporters of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy warn that repealing it would harm military readiness, cohesion, privacy and recruitment, and also encroach upon the religious liberty of those in the military whose opposition to homosexual conduct is based on the Bible.
Earlier this year, more than 60 chaplains signed a letter to Obama and Gates expressing concern that overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would result in the marginalizing of “deeply held” religious beliefs. They warned in their letter that changing the policy could influence everything in the chaplaincy, from what a chaplain can say in a sermon to what he can say in a counseling session. The fear is that chaplains who speak against homosexuality will have a discrimination complaint filed against them. Chaplains who preach through entire books of the Bible, the letter said, would “inevitably present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral.”
“[M]aking 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.”
Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, one of the service chiefs, told reporters Tuesday that implementing a repeal during the current war environment could cost lives because it would serve as a distraction. Amos and the chiefs of the other branches comprise four of the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines lives,” Amos was quoted as saying. “That’s the currency of this fight. I don’t want to lose any Marines to the distraction. I don’t want to have any Marines that I’m visiting at Bethesda with no legs be the result of any type of distraction.”
A recent Pentagon study of military personnel found that many had concerns over repealing the policy.
For instance, 59 percent of Marines who have been in combat and 44 percent of all personnel who have been in combat said having openly homosexuals in a field environment or at sea would have a negative effect on their unit’s “effectiveness at completing its mission.”
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, and 40 percent of Marines and 27 percent of all the military said they would be less likely to recommend to a friend or family member that he or she join the military.
Privacy also was a concern for those surveyed. Among all personnel, only 29 percent said they would “take no action” if they were assigned to share, with a homosexual person, bathroom facilities with an open bay shower. Twenty-six percent said they’d use it at a different time than the other person, 18 percent said they’d discuss the situation with a leader to see if there were other options, and 11 percent said they’d discuss the situation with the person they believed was homosexual.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land sent a letter to Sens. Carl Levin, D.-Mich., and John McCain, R.-Ariz., earlier this month, pointing to data in the Pentagon study and asserting, “[W]e do not believe it is in our nation’s best interest to allow the practice of open homosexual behavior in the military.” Levin and McCain are the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“[W]e have serious concerns about numerous findings in the report that reinforce our objection,” Land said.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.