New Law May Allow Anti-LGBT Discrimination in Armed Forces

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January 3, 2013

President Obama signed into law yesterday a defense budget bill including a clause that may allow service members to invoke “religious conscience” as a defense for illegal discrimination.

In a lengthy signing statement, the President promised to protect the rights of lesbian and gay service members. He also ordered the Defense Department to ensure that the so-called conscience provision is not improperly used to shield discriminatory conduct.

"Section 533 is an unnecessary and ill-advised provision, as the military already appropriately protects the freedom of conscience of chaplains and service members,” the President wrote. “The Secretary of Defense will ensure that the implementing regulations do not permit or condone discriminatory actions that compromise good order and discipline or otherwise violate military codes of conduct. My Administration remains fully committed to continuing the successful implementation of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and to protecting the rights of gay and lesbian service members; Section 533 will not alter that."

Last week, Lambda Legal and six other LGBT and civil rights groups submitted a letter warning the President that Section 533 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act “could lead to claims of a right to discriminate against not just lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members, but also women, religious minorities, and in the provision of health care.”

“Requests for accommodation could, for instance, undermine longstanding prohibitions against harassment, give rise to claims of a right to proselytize other service members and civilians in occupied areas, and lead to claims affecting health care services or anti-harassment training,” the letter explained.

Lambda Legal joined the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the Interfaith Alliance and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in signing the letter.