By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Military lawyers are reviewing whether to permit same-sex marriages on Navy bases -- and allowing chaplains to officiate -- once a ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces is lifted, a Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday.
The review comes after Rear Admiral M.L. Tidd, the chief Navy chaplain, on Tuesday abruptly suspended a memorandum he issued last month that would have eventually opened the door to same sex weddings or civil unions on Navy bases in states where it is legal.
The memo prompted a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus from 63 Republican congressmen who questioned whether it would violate a 1996 federal law -- the Defense of Marriage Act -- which defines "marriage" as a legal union between one man and one woman.
"Offering up federal facilities and federal employees for same-sex marriages violates DOMA, which is still the law of the land and binds our military, including chaplains," the letter said.
"The administration and various states may be operating as if DOMA doesn't exist, but the Navy and Marine Corps and all the armed services are sworn to obey the law, which this new instruction violates," it said.
Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said news coverage of Tidd's memo and the subsequent letter from Republican lawmakers had prompted a discussion between Defense Department and Navy attorneys that led to a decision to review the issue.
"That memo itself raised questions about policy and legal implications that require further review," Lapan said. "So that's why the memo was suspended, until that review can be conducted."
It was unclear how the Navy review would affect the Army and other branches of the U.S. armed services.
Lapan said it could help determine whether there needed to be a uniform Defense Department policy on the issue, rather than a separate one for each service branch.
The issue first arose as Navy chaplains prepared for training to ready the military for the lifting of the 17-year ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces.
Under a law passed by Congress in December, service members must undergo a period of training, after which the defense secretary and the military's top uniformed officer will certify they are ready for the ban to be lifted. The restriction would then be removed after a 60-day waiting period.
Lapan said part of the purpose of the training was to work through unanticipated issues that might arise upon implementation of the new policy. He said the initial view at the Pentagon had concluded there was nothing in the guidelines to prevent same-sex ceremonies on bases.
"But now ... legal counsel wants to go in and take a closer look at it," he said.
Tidd said in his April 13 memo that while curriculum was being developed to train the service members, "several policy questions were raised related to same-sex marriages" and were forwarded to legal counsel for review.
The attorneys determined that "base facility use is sexual orientation neutral," Tidd wrote. "If the base is located in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, then base facilities may normally be used to celebrate marriage."
"This is a change to previous training that stated same-sex marriages are not authorized on federal property," he added.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)