A revised Defense Department policy intended to quell criticism of its August announcement of granting uncharged marriage leave to gay and lesbian service members still fails to fix the issue, says Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
The ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Service Committee contends the Pentagon still is granting same-sex couples a special benefit.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel notified Inhofe in a Sept. 6 letter that, given the senator’s concerns, Hagel had met with service secretaries and the Joint Chiefs to review the issue. Based on those discussions, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness Jessica Wright had issued “clarifying guidance” to the services.
The marriage leave provision inserted in the department’s Leave and Liberty Policy and Procedures was removed. Instead, language was inserted that allows the services to grant administrative absences to any member wishing to marry who is assigned more than 100 miles away from an area where they legally can marry.
Hagel said the revised policy also addresses Inhofe’s concern that the department lacks authority to grant uncharged leave.
“There is long-standing precedent that commanders have discretionary authority to grant liberty to service members. An administrative absence to obtain a legal marriage falls within this authority,” Hagel wrote.
“This clarification reinforces the department’s commitment to treat all men and women who serve our country and their families equally,” Hagel wrote. “It will ensure that military benefits will be available to all military spouses, regardless of whether they are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages.”
Inhofe called Hagel’s response “a disappointment” in a written statement an aide provided to Military Update.
“The department’s decision to cancel the uncharged leave benefit and substitute an ‘administrative absence’ provision did not fix the issue at hand. Not only does the Secretary fail to disclose his authority to create this administrative leave benefit but it still violates their own expressed policy … that they will ‘treat all military personnel equally.’”
Inhofe said he didn’t know of a situation in which heterosexual members would be eligible for administrative absence, presumably because they legally can marry in any state and overseas areas too.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Sept. 19 on several senior defense executives, including Wright, who is nominated to become under secretary of defense. She is expected to face questions on this policy from Inhofe and other conservatives.
Wright’s Sept. 4 memo does provide the services more detailed and restrictive guidance on how many days of absence they should grant to members unable to marry within 100 miles of current assignments. The number should depend on two factors.
One is the waiting period that a state or jurisdiction requires either to obtain a marriage license or, after obtaining a license, the wait required before a couple can marry. The second factor is travel time to and from a jurisdiction that allows the marriage. A maximum of two days’ travel is authorized if a member is in the continental United States; a maximum of five days’ travel is authorized if a member is assigned outside the country.
Commands are to calculate days of administrative absences based not on where members want to marry but on the nearest jurisdictions where they can marry.
Stephen Peters, president of American Military Partner Association, endorsed Wright’s clarifying memo, saying: “In effect, nothing has changed. Avoiding references to sexual orientation is completely acceptable and is a practical approach that silences the arguments of the critics.”
The policy is “an answer to the inequality that same-gender military couples face who are stationed in states that deny them the ability to marry, thereby denying them the ability to access military support and benefits in order to care for their family and focus on the mission first.”
Heterosexuals won’t benefit, Peters conceded, because they already can marry anywhere, “which is the fundamental point of the policy.”To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20129, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update