June 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
House panel adopts ‘conscience’ amendment to defense bill
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A House panel approved an amendment that would make it easier for troops to harass their gay colleagues. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A House panel on Wednesday approved as part of major defense legislation an amendment that would make it easier for troops to harass their gay comrades without fear of reprisal.

The amendment, introduced by Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), was approved by the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 33-26 as part of the fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill.

Fleming’s measure would expand the “conscience provision” that already exists in defense law. It would protect discriminatory speech and actions and leave commanders with no recourse against prejudicial conduct when it occurs in their units.

Further, the measure requires the Pentagon to implement regulations within 120 days after the bill becomes law. The defense secretary must consult with “official military faith-group representatives who endorse military chaplains” before the regulations are issued.

President Obama signed the existing “conscience provision” under Section 533 as part of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Authorization Act. At the time of the signing, Obama called it “unnecessary” and said he was signing the defense package under assurances the Pentagon wouldn’t “permit or condone discriminatory actions that compromise good order and discipline or otherwise violate military codes of conduct.”

LGBT groups expressed disappointment over the adoption of the amendment and said it reflects a continued discontent among those who opposed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said “it is disappointing” the House panel approved “this dangerous amendment” as part of the defense authorization bill.

“It is, quite frankly, puzzling why a majority of members on this committee would support a measure that has the potential to make it more difficult for commanders to responsibly deal with problems regarding conduct that undermines longstanding prohibitions against harassment,” Thompson said.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Let’s face it — this amendment is simply another attack by those who still oppose the successful repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and continue to look for ways to allow discrimination in our Armed Forces,” Cole-Schwartz said. “This amendment will expand a standard in the law that could allow religion to serve as a proxy for discrimination which clearly harms unit cohesion and military readiness.”

Allyson Robinson, executive director the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN and Army veteran, expressed opposition to the amendment because, among other things, the bill would undermine the authority of military commanders.

“This amendment takes an authority this nation has entrusted to commanders in the field since its founding – the authority to exercise appropriate control over their troops’ ‘actions or speech’ to maintain good order and discipline – and puts it in the hands of politicians in Washington,” Robinson said. “As someone who has led soldiers in the field, I can tell you that is an untenable situation.”

According to OutServe-SLDN, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), top Democrat on the committee, introduced and withdrew key elements of the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act (MSET) that would ensure “equal benefits, recognition, and support for all military spouses.”

Given the Republican majority on the panel, the measure would have likely failed if Smith had brought up the measure for a vote.

Robinson said Smith’s action serves a reminder that gay service members are unable to receive many spousal benefits — including health and pension benefits — because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“This important gesture is a reminder that the families of gay and lesbian service members are still not treated equally and that the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ did not impact that reality,” Robinson said. “Congressman Smith is a tenacious fighter for equality in our military and for our troops and we are grateful for all his work to that end.”

The Blade will provide a roll call vote on the Fleming amendment soon.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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  • SusanF

    “and puts it in the hands of politicians in Washington,”–just like they’ve done with women’s health care. Straight WASP males are making policy for people about whose issues they either don’t understand or don’t care about.

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