WASHINGTON -- Conservative critics are blasting the Defense Department for giving gay troops an early wedding gift: up to 10 days uncharged leave time for same-sex marriages.
Pentagon officials say it’s about fairness, not generosity. Only 13 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, creating a hardship for U.S. servicemembers stationed in many parts of the world.
The policy change came last week as part of Pentagon plans to extend spousal benefits to all married couples, gay or straight, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in June knocking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. For the last two years, defense officials have said that law barred them from offering any military benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Along with housing stipends, health care coverage and separation pay, the new rules allow commanders to grant free leave time -- up to 10 days for troops overseas, up to seven days for U.S.-based troops more than 100 miles from a state that recognizes same-sex marriages -- for gay troops to marry.
Members of the Family Research Council, which opposed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, labeled the uncharged leave policy government-endorsed “homosexual honeymoons.” Peter Sprigg, FRC’s senior fellow for policy studies, said the move goes well beyond simply recognizing same-sex couples in the ranks.
“It could well be argued that the new policy actively discriminates against opposite-sex couples, who receive no special leave for their weddings,” he wrote in a FRC news release on Thursday.
DoD officials dismissed those arguments, saying that military life presents extra difficulties for gay troops looking to get married. Travel to the states that allow same-sex marriages is a significant problem for troops stationed in places such as Texas or South Korea.
“(The uncharged leave) will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.
Gay servicemembers aren’t guaranteed the full seven or 10 days off. Christensen said decisions on the amount of time granted will be made by their commanders, who will decide based on unit responsibilities and an individual’s personal situation.
The uncharged leave is for “traveling to a jurisdiction where [a same-sex] marriage may occur,” not for a wedding vacation, Christensen said.
Advocates noted that the military is offering uncharged leave, not travel stipends or any way to cover the costs of potentially lengthy trips.
“We don’t want the country at large to think that these couples are getting special treatment,” said Mark Mazzone, spokesman for the military LGBT advocacy group SPART*A. “There will still be expenses and difficulties, but we feel like (the uncharged leave) is a fair compromise.”
In the past, Pentagon officials have estimated that about 5,600 active-duty servicemembers and 3,400 guardsmen and reservists would apply for same-sex spousal benefits when they became available.