Since September 20th, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erwynn and his husband Will Umali-Behrens have been able to breath a sigh of relief—their four child household no longer has to pay for health insurance that costs more than both their car payments combined.
“With a flick of a pen, it really helped us financially,” Will said.
Military service members have just begun to exercise their new marriage rights and the spousal benefits that come with them but there have also been pockets of resistance from both church and state officials. At the local level a half dozen states are actively working to undermine federal directives and deny benefits to service members in same sex marriages while, on a different front, some churches have threatened military chaplains who perform weddings for gay couples with having their ordinations revoked.
Gay members of the military cleared several hurdles on the road to equality in the past few months, beginning with the Pentagon extending marriage benefits to same sex couples in August (PDF). Then, in September the military approved extra leave for gay and lesbian couples, up to 10 days, so that service members stationed in states that won’t allow them to be married can travel to states can travel to states where same sex marriage is legal.
Within two weeks of the extra leave being approved, Erwynn and Will took advantage of it to formally register as a married couple.
“We actually got married in Delaware overnight on the two year anniversary of the repeal of DADT,” Will said. According to him, the process to obtain official marriage registration was fairly painless.
“Erwynn just went through his chain of command, told them what he needed to do. They approved the leave very quickly and easily,” he said.
Once they sped to Delaware, state officials were eager to help the couple.
“You had to have two witnesses [and] we’re 120 miles from home, we don’t know anybody,” Will said. ”We just went office to office and people were jumping to be our witnesses … these were simply employees of the state of Delaware who wanted to be part of this,” he said.
Erwynn and Will said that the military benefits they received since being legally marriage have made a tremendous difference in their everyday lives
John Gillespie, co-chair of Outserve Service Members Legal Defense Network, said he was unaware of any couples encountering opposition in obtaining a marriage license as of yet.
“It’s a little early to say who has received their benefits and who hasn’t,” he said. “Full implementation has not been achieved yet, and that’s just more of an administrative problem than any one policy.”
“The guidance for how to do it is just now coming out to the different service branches,” he said.
The Marines were the first to issue guidance on granting benefits to same sex families, followed by the Army and the Navy. The Air Force is currently issuing guidelines.
Even though it is early in the process, Gillespie believes that the Department of Defense has shown a commitment to equality for same sex couples.
“The military is absolutely moving forward and committed to equality for same sex families,” he said. “However, the military is a giant bureaucracy and those directives take time to implement—basically, we’re way down the road, but we’re not completely integrated yet. It’s just a matter of time, I think.”
Same sex marriage statistics among service members are difficult, if not impossible to track down. The DOD does not keep records of marriages on military installations and military bases contacted by The Daily Beast did not have estimates of how many service members have taken advantage of the directive. Meanwhile, States also do not have a standardized policy for recording same sex marriages, with some states asking couples to self-identify and others creating gender-neutral registration forms.
Military Chaplains, Caught Between Church and State
While initial responses indicate that same sex couples in the service have been able to exercise their new marriage rights without significant restrictions, the adoption of new norms has been more problematic for military clergy. According to Forum on Military Chaplaincy co-chair Paul Dodd, military chaplains, who are charged with carrying out DOD orders like all service members, can face reprisals from their religious leaders for officiating or supporting same-sex marriages.
Dodd said that several Christian denominations such as the Southern Baptist Church and the Roman Catholic Church have asked chaplains not to officiate same sex weddings or risk their endorsement being revoked by the Church.
The North American Mission Board, an organization that regulates NAMB issued guidelines to Southern Baptist chaplains, clarified that chaplains endorsed by NAMB are allowed to refer gay couples to other chaplains.
The Southern Baptists’ instructions states that chaplains endorsed by the Church must restrict virtually any assistance and support of same sex couples. According to the church’s guidelines, chaplains cannot conduct or attend a same-sex wedding, bless or support a civil union, in anyway that would “give the appearance of accepting the homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing.”
NAMB spokesperson Mike Ebert said that chaplains who do not comply have two options.
“If a chaplain feels they are not able to fulfill their ministry within those expectations, they would either resign their endorsement with us or we would pull it,” he said.
Ebert said that the Southern Baptist Church does not actively monitor their chaplains.
“We have a good relationship with our chaplains and trust them to exercise their ministry in a way that is consistent with Southern Baptist beliefs. We conduct conferences and training that help reinforce that,” he said.
Other denominations have issued similarly prohibitive protocol for their chaplains. For instance, Roman Catholic leaders have issued guidelines stating that they would not bury married gay soldiers.
This issue of religious conflict hits close to home for the Umali-Behrens. Attending their marriage to show support for the couple jeopardized the endorsement of Col. Timothy Wagoner, the head chaplain at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst who was then affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
“He talked to us as we went along in the process to make sure everything was going smoothly, and the basically kicked him out just for attending,” Will said.
“It puts the chaplain in a tough position because your religion doesn’t believe in it, and maybe you don’t either, but when you’re in a leadership role … your job is to be there for your airmen,” he said.
Wagoner chose his leadership role and his endorsement from NAMB was revoked. Today, he continues to serve as chaplain affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“I find very little that is more important and nothing that is more exhilarating than providing for the religious freedoms and spiritual care of all service members and their families—and will joyfully continue to do so,” Wagoner said.
“These wonderful military traditions that heterosexuals for years and years have enjoyed as part of military culture, and it’s really unjust that same sex couples who are proud and loyal citizens are not allowed the same privilege,” Dodd said.
Forum co-chair Tom Carpenter added that a military marriage ceremony also acts as a way to induct non-military spouse into the military family by showcasing military traditions and the meaning behind them.
“It’s an educational process for them, and then they feel like they’re part of the family,” Carpenter said.
For their civil union, the Umali-Behrens requested the Honor Guard on base to conduct a cordon to create the Arch of Swords for the newly wed couple to walk under.
“One of the air force traditions is that the last two people on that cordon drop their swords… and the person to their right would smack the civilian in the butt with the sword to kind of welcome them into the military family,” Erwynn said with a chuckle.
The Umali-Behrens’ ceremony received much media attention in summer of 2012, when their civil union was touted as the first same sex marriage performed in the military—a little too much attention for comfort for the Umali-Behrens who had arranged for an intimate rite for themselves.
“We didn’t know this was going to be this big, but second of all, we didn’t need 15 reporters sitting there and hounding kids,” Will remembered. Their four children, all from their previous marriages, were the only ‘groomsmen’ who walked down the aisle with the couple.
“It was all about us as a family, and not about the media attention,” Will said. “Yes that all came, it was all great and all, but we really wanted to be an encouragement to show that not only could you [get married] as a same sex couple, but you could do this with kids.”
Erwynn said that the culture in the military has not changed much.
“If they didn’t repeal [DADT], we’d say ‘Yessir, yes ma’am, no problem.’ Since they did repeal it, we say the same thing: ‘Yessir, yes ma’m, no problem,’” he said.
“I didn’t see that much change,” Erwynn recalled. “Some people smirked about it, but then right away they were like, ‘We’re all in military, we can’t say that’ or ‘we can’t do this’ so they have to adhere to the standards and the policies in the military.”
State-level pushback on benefits
Erwynn and Will said that the military benefits they received since being legally marriage have made a tremendous difference in their everyday lives, even after the civil union.
Their marriage also resolved many of the daily inconveniences that they had before, like the fact that Erwynn had to meet Will at the gate and escort him on base.
But some states are pushing back against the DOD’s directive for same sex couples to receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. Currently, Georgia and Louisiana bar same sex National Guard spouses from registering for benefits, citing state authority.
The Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, has gone even further. To prevent gay service members from receiving spousal benefits she has ordered state National Guard facilities to stop processing marriage benefits for all service members, including straight couples.
Officials in Texas had also recently stopped processing housing benefits for same sex couples in the national guard.
Gillespie said that the Texas and other state officials were getting by on a technicality, as the national guard is under the command of the state legislature unless it is federalized by the President.
“Although we absolutely disagree with their position, and we are actively working to change that policy,” Gillespie said. “The issue of the recalcitrant National Guards is being worked at very high levels,” he said.
The DOD approved a policy this week allowing National Guard members to register for benefits at federal facilities within Texas, creating a work-around for service members in that state.
Erwynn said that patience was key as the military continues to move towards equalizing couples’ rights. He and his husband didn’t think that they would have marriage benefits until four or five years down the line.
“Then, a year and a half later, we have them,” he said.