Miss. NG chief bucks Pentagon with refusal to recognize same sex marriages

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Published: November 8,2013

Tags: BRACC, Business, military, Mississippi

Mississippi’s top Army National Guard officer, Maj. Gen. Augustus “Leon” Collins, is caught between Mississippi’s refusal to recognize gay marriage and the insistence of the Pentagon that Mississippi issue official ID cards to the same-sex spouses of Air and Army National Guard members.

national_guard_logo_rgbAt this point, Mississippi Adjutant General Collins is sticking with the position outlined late Friday by a spokesman for Gov. Phil Bryant which cited the state’s constitutional ban on recognizing same-sex marriages.

» READ MORE: Florida forcing all National Guard families to get IDs at federal bases

Specifically, Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said, the state constitution “defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and expressly prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.”

Timothy J. Powell, a spokesman for Collins, said the governor’s statement says all that needs to be said. “Gov. Bryant’s statement speaks for itself,” Powell said.

Powell said Collins reaffirmed his position in a conversation Monday afternoon. “We must continue to abide by the state constitution,” Collins is reported to have told Powell.

Powell said he is unaware of any requests by the same sex spouses of Guard members for identification cards. If it receives a request, “We will refer them to active duty installations.”

The ID cards would allow gay spouses to receive the same benefits as other spouses of Guard personnel.

Defense officials estimate 18,000 same-sex couples are in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees. It’s unclear how many of those are married, the Associated Press reported. The Pentagon policy on equal access to benefits does not apply to unmarried gay partners of military members.

Under Pentagon policy that took effect Sept.3, same-sex spouses of military members are eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits provided opposite-sex spouses. That decision followed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June voiding the Defense of Marriage Act.

Collins received an official request Friday from the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, to follow Department of Defense policy and begin issuing the ID cards. Grass made his request to Collins and the commanders of the national guards of seven other states on orders from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Grass, Collins spokesman Powell said, has “no authority” to order a change.

“We’re still abiding by the state constitution,” Powell said.

The federal leverage comes from the vast majority of expenditures it covers for National Guard units. “The National Guard Bureau has no authority; however, the governors and their adjutants understand where the allocations of their budgets and personnel come from,” said a spokesman at the Guard Bureau.

For now, Gen. Grass, who represents the National Guard as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will continue to try persuasion. If that continues to fail, stay tuned, the Bureau spokesman said.

Hagel said in a speech last week the states’ actions reflect prejudice and violate their obligation under federal law. “Their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they’re entitled to,” he said.

Hagel said the adjutant generals, though they work for their states’ governors, “will be expected to comply” with Pentagon policy on this issue.

In a statement late Friday, Grass’ National Guard Bureau said Grass “will employ all means available to ensure that the National Guard is 100 percent compliant with the DoD policy to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of National Guard members.”

Grass, the statement said, looks forward to the “anticipated compliance” of the National Guard organizations of Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

“Soldiers, Airmen and their family members who serve their nation deserve the full complement of benefits they have earned through their service and sacrifice,” the National Guard Bureau statement said. “Nothing less is acceptable. We expect that these eight states will follow the lead of the 46 other states, territories and D.C. and comply with DoD guidance.”

Guard Bureau spokeswoman Rose Richeson acknowledged the Bureau can’t issue direct orders to the National Guard commanders. “We’re here to communicate policy,” she said.

Where the Department of Defense does have leverage is in recommending which installations should be maintained or closed in any new round of base realignments and closings. How well a state partners with the DoD is a key criteria in the selection process.

States with a significant military presence such as Mississippi are bracing for the likelihood of a new round of military installation shutdowns through a Base Realignment & Closure Commission. Though neither the president nor Congress has fully decided on when the next round of closings will occur, officials in Washington and Mississippi expect a new BRACC in the next couple of years as the nation trims expenditures.

The question for Mississippi and the seven other states is whether they are willing to maintain their stands on same-sex marriage benefits at the risk of receiving a lower BRACC rating in the all-important “compatibility” with military policy category.

Mississippi recognized the stakes in the last legislative session when it included $2 million in the 2013 bond issue to ready Mississippi’s military communities for the likelihood of a BRACC return in 2015.

Under BRACC, a panel appointed by the president and approved by Congress selects bases for closing and submits a list to Congress for an up-or-down vote. No changes can be made to the list after submission.

The DoD recommends installations for realignment or closure to the BRACC panel.

The state’s $2-million allocation is likely to be only a down payment as the intentions of the president, Congress and the Pentagon become clearer.

The state spent a reported $60 million to $65 million in the 2005 round of base closings, an effort that helped to save such Mississippi military mainstays as Keesler Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Meridian, Camp Shelby and Columbus Air Force Base. The state, however, lost a Navy installation in Pascagoula and Air National Guard Air Wing in Meridian.

Even without a formally appointed BRACC panel, key members of Congress from both parties have acknowledged that significant cuts in defense spending, especially in the military’s domestic infrastructure, are ahead.

Manning McPhillips, chief administrative officer of the Mississippi Development Authority, is coordinating the state’s military current installation defense efforts. In an interview earlier this year, he said the state’s main focus will be to enhance the mission of the bases.

In preparation for BRACC, each part of the state that is home to a military installation has a military communities council. Each council sends a representative to a state council chaired by retired Army National Guard Maj. Gen. William “Bill’ Freeman Jr., a Newton County banking executive.

Curt Goldacker, a retired Navy captain and member of the Meridian’s military communities council, said he is certain the state’s refusal to issue the ID cards will not diminish the BRACC survival chances of either Naval Air Station Meridian or the 186th Mississippi Air National Guard Refueling Wing based at Key Field in Meridian.

 

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