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Pentagon to Allow Chaplains to Officiate Weddings for Gay and Lesbian Service Members

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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September 30, 2011

Last week, after nearly 18 years and 14,000 dismissals, the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became official. Earlier today, the Pentagon made clear that military chaplains will be permitted to officiate at wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian service members in those states where such marriages are legally recognized. In addition, the Pentagon made clear that these marriages can be performed on military bases, as well as other Defense Department facilities.

In addition, just as the ACLU has long stated, no military chaplains will be required to perform any marriage ceremony, including any marriage ceremony that does not comply with the teachings and tenets of the military chaplain’s denomination or faith. Chaplains, whose duty is to care for all service members and facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, are nonetheless protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

However, today’s Pentagon memo provided necessary clarity because there are many religious denominations and faiths – including sponsors of military chaplains – that authorize their clergy members to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Contrary to the claims some anti-gay organizations will almost certainly make, this memo fully protects the ability of military chaplains to follow the dictates of their faith, including those whose denominations and faith permit marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. It also protects the right of chaplains not to perform such marriage ceremonies.

The ACLU has a profound respect for and a long history of defending religious liberty as well as the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. This memo makes clear that establishing equality for all people who serve our country is not inconsistent with respecting and protecting religious liberty.

Last week was about ending official government discrimination. This week is about extending equality to gay and lesbian service members.

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