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Critics: Defense bill ‘conscience protections’ give license to discriminate against gays

Thursday, June 6, 2013
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday adopted an amendment to expand the so-called “conscience protections” in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that critics say would allow service members to promote anti-gay beliefs without fear of discipline.

The amendment, sponsored by Louisiana Republican John Fleming, makes subtle changes to the original text of the conscience clause, adding language protecting “actions and speech.” Opponents say the change would make it difficult to discipline service members for anti-gay discrimination.

Under the original text of the bill, the U.S. Armed Forces would be required “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 original text also stated: “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.”

As amended, the bill reads:

“Except in cases of military necessity, the Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs, actions, and speech 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, actions, or speech 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 actually harm good order and discipline.”

Critics charge that as written the amendment extends the current protections, resulting in situations where service members could go much further in promoting their anti-gay beliefs without fear of discipline.

According to OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson, the provision suggests that no disciplinary action could be taken until expression of a belief “actually harms,” suggesting that much greater levels of anti-gay of harassment could be tolerated.

“The military already has in place policies that adequately protect a service member’s personal beliefs while also protecting unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” said Robinson.

“This amendment is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage the climate of inclusion and respect for all that our Commander-in-Chief and Secretary of Defense have called for in our military, and would create a license to bully, harass, and discriminate against service members based on religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any number of other characteristics,” she added.

“As someone who has led soldiers in the field, I can tell you that is an untenable situation,” Robinson added.

The Senate will begin debating a version of the bill later this month.

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