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Navy reverses itself on gay marriages on military bases

From Charley Keyes, CNN
The Navy is changing course on guidance that would have allowed gay marriage on military bases.
The Navy is changing course on guidance that would have allowed gay marriage on military bases.
  • NEW: The Pentagon confirms the Navy plan was reversed after criticism from Capitol Hill
  • NEW: Supporters of same-sex marriage say military facilities should be used in a "nondiscriminatory" manner
  • The Navy has suspended guidance that would have eventually allowed same-sex marriages on military bases
  • Before the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is changed, it must receive a final sign-off from top Pentagon officials

Washington (CNN) -- The Navy confirmed Wednesday that it did an abrupt about-face on guidance allowing same-sex marriages on military bases after receiving a flood of criticism from Capitol Hill, as well as discussions with Defense Department lawyers.

The guidance -- outlined in a memorandum last month from the Navy chief of chaplains, Rear Adm. M.L. Tidd -- would have eased the way for same-sex marriage ceremonies once the Pentagon scraps its present "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces, is expected to be officially lifted later this year.

Tidd said Tuesday that his memo, originally issued on April 13, was suspended "until further notice pending additional legal and policy review and inter-Departmental coordination."

Tidd's plan gave a green light to the use of base facilities for same-sex ceremonies in states that allow either same-sex marriage or civil unions. It said chaplains' participation in such ceremonies would depend on whether it was "consistent with the tenets of his or her religious" beliefs.

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Some critics of the plan warned it would violate the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

"There was some attention on the Hill," Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters Wednesday morning. "That raised the issue so that the (Pentagon) legal counsel then again took a look (and) determined it needed further review."

The Navy's surprise switch energized both supporters and opponents of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

One prominent defender of the law -- Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness -- said the controversy should push Congress to intervene quickly.

"Congress should not be misled by the Navy's equivocation," Donnelly said. "This weather-vane policy is likely to change back as soon as all the branches of service get on board and Congress looks the other way.

"Congress must intervene since the Defense Department lawyers don't know -- or don't want to tell -- what they are doing," she said.

On the other side of the issue, Servicemembers United Executive Director Alexander Nicholson insisted the Navy was within its rights on same-sex marriage policy.

Nicholson said the Pentagon should not be distracted by "pressure from reactionaries."

"At a time when the economy still needs attention, Osama bin Laden was just killed, and revolution and conflict continue to rage across a fragile Middle East, having policy makers spend valuable and limited time on whether a few gay couples may or may not use a Navy facility for a private ceremony at some point in the future is just plain silly," Nicholson said in a statement sent to CNN.

"The Navy was right in their analysis last month that nothing stands in the way of operating facilities without discrimination, and further review will no doubt validate that position," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, which supports same-sex marriage.

"While some lawmakers are dragging out scare tactics, there is nothing controversial in allowing facilities to be operated in a nondiscriminatory manner," he said.

It remains unclear what same-sex marriage policies the other services might be considering or ultimately adopt.

As for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," top Pentagon officials have indicated they expect to be ready to implement a repeal of the policy by midsummer.

Clifford Stanley -- the Defense Department under secretary tasked with overseeing the repeal -- told members of a House Armed Services subcommittee in April that the process will not be rushed "because we want to make sure that it's done right."

But "at the same time, we don't want to take forever to do it," he said.

President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will ultimately need to certify that the Defense Department is ready for a repeal of the policy. At that point, a 60-day countdown will begin before the repeal is officially implemented.

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.