President Barack Obama called a conscience clause for military chaplains in the National Defense Authorization Act “unnecessary and ill-advised.”
The NDAA provision ordered that no member of the armed forces may require a chaplain to perform a rite or ceremony that violates the chaplain’s beliefs, and that chaplains may not be disciplined for refusing to perform such a ceremony.
The provision, which was introduced by now-former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, was a response to Obama’s 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Religious liberty advocates and chaplains worried that they may be required to violate their consciences by administering sacraments or officiating marriage ceremonies to gay service members, which would be contrary to some religious traditions, including those of the Catholic Church.
“The Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such beliefs as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment,” the bill read.
But Obama, who declared his personal support for gay marriage last year, said the bill’s concerns are unfounded.
“The military already appropriately protects the freedom of conscience of chaplains and service members,” Obama wrote Jan. 2 in announcing his signing of the bill. “The secretary of defense will ensure that the implementing regulations do not permit or condone discriminatory actions that compromise good order and discipline or otherwise violate military codes of conduct.”
Obama signed the NDAA Jan. 2 in Hawaii after it passed the Senate Dec. 21, saying that although he did not agree with each provision in the 680-page bill, “the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore.”
He also promised his allies that the bill — now law — will not hinder the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (RELATED: Obama denounced ‘signing statements’ under Bush, now uses them as president)
“My administration remains fully committed to continuing the successful implementation of the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, and to protecting the rights of gay and lesbian service members,” Obama wrote in a statement. “Section 533 will not alter that.”
Religious liberty advocates remained wary of Obama’s interpretation of the law.
“Chaplains should be able to stand by their faith traditions and honor their commitment to God’s Word. That’s a freedom that Congress sought to protect, and the president is not at liberty to disregard the law,” said Col. Ron Crews, a retired Army chaplain and executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.
“Every member of our armed forces should be able to serve without surrendering their beliefs,” Crews said in a statement.
An earlier version of the NDAA had banned same-sex marriage ceremonies on U.S. military property. A White House policy statement in May 2012 strongly objected to that provision, and listed it as one of the reasons Obama’s seniors advisers would recommend that he veto the bill.
That section that banned gay marriage ceremonies was ultimately removed from the final bill, and the Pentagon issued a ruling in September 2012 allowing military chaplains to perform same-sex unions, on or off a military installation.
Chaplains who have moral objections are now exempt under that rule. The NDAA means that the conscience clause has the backing of law.