The final version of major Pentagon budget legislation includes watered-down “conscience” language similar to the anti-gay provision found in the House version of the bill, according to a top House Democrat on defense issues.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, affirmed during a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday language along the lines of Section 536 of the House bill made its way into the conference report for the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill, although the scope of the language is more limited.
Other language found under Section 537 of the House bill prohibiting same-sex marriages from taking place on military bases, Smith said, was removed from the final version of the bill. Smith made the remarks in response to a question from the Washington Blade.
“We struck the second provision,” Smith said. “There is modified conscience clause language still in the bill … Basically, you can believe what you believe and not be punished for it, but if your actions based on those beliefs are counter to the Uniform Code of Military Justice or counter to what’s necessary, that can be held against you. But you can’t be punished solely for your beliefs. We modified that first language, struck the second language.”
Asked whether the language applies to only chaplains or all service members, Smith replied, “Anybody.”
Following Smith’s remarks, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, added, “Of course as chaplains are concerned, they have the tenets of their faith.” Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-Mich.) then added, “It is conduct which we’re going after on the part of the chaplains, not beliefs.”
Asked afterward by the Blade whether there was significant discussion during the conference committee about the conscience language, Smith voiced his personal opposition to the language.
“Just to be honest, I don’t support the conscience language that’s in the bill,” Smith said. “Now they stripped it down, they made it to the extent that it’s pretty neutral. It basically says you cannot be punished solely for your beliefs, OK? It’s language that I don’t think belongs in the bill.”
Smith added that it will have no substantive impact on service members and he’ll support the defense authorization bill as a whole.
“I think that’s current law,” Smith said. “You can’t punish someone based solely on their beliefs. It has to be actions. That’s current law. I didn’t think that this language needed to be in it. If you ask me, what the one thing I would take out of this bill, if I could, that would be the one thing I would take out of this bill. Now, it’s significantly neutered, if you will, to the point where I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, and I’m going to support the bill, but that is a provision that I did not support.”
A summary of the defense authorization bill published by House Democrats after the news conference is in line with Smith’s description of the language. Under the heading, “Other Personnel Matters,” a bullet point states the bill “[r]equires the Armed Forces to accommodate the beliefs of a service member and chaplain reflecting the service member’s or chaplain’s conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, and in so far as practicable, would prohibit use of such beliefs as the basis for any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training or assignment. The protection does not protect the speech or conduct of an individual, and preserves the authority to take disciplinary or administrative actions that threaten good order and discipline.”
The actual language of the defense authorization bill isn’t yet publicly available. Spokespersons for the House and Senate Armed Services Committees didn’t immediately respond to a request to provide the language. Floor votes on the conference report are expected to take place later this week.
Last week, the Washington Blade reported that some House Republicans in the conference committee were actively pushing for the conscience provisions as part of the final version of the defense spending measure. In the House bill, that language was inserted in the bill during committee markup by outgoing Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who later became notorious as a U.S. Senate candidate for suggesting that a woman can resist becoming pregnant after a “legitimate rape.”
That provision was understood to mean service members could actively harass their colleagues based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation without fear of reprisal. Additionally, it was understood to mean that chaplains would have free rein to discriminate against service members on any basis — including religion, gender, sexual orientation, race or any other characteristic — simply by saying serving them is contrary to their beliefs.
The White House said in May the Obama administration “strongly objects” to the conscience provision in the House version of the defense authorization bill along with a provision prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying on military bases as part of its Statement of Administration Policy. Still, the statement doesn’t go as far as issuing a veto threat if the final version of the bill includes these provisions. A White House spokesperson didn’t respond immediately on short notice to a request for comment.