The Navy has always prided itself on command at sea, where a captain's word is law and there is no court of appeals. But the admiralty has often found that this tradition doesn't apply on the shoals of Capitol Hill.
On April 13, the Navy's top chaplain, Rear Admiral Mark Tidd, sent a memo to his fellow chaplains declaring that the service would conduct same-sex marriages and civil unions on military bases once the Pentagon implemented the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," which President Obama signed into law in December.
Capitol Hill Republicans considered the memo a depth charge. Representative Todd Akin of Missouri rounded up 62 fellow opponents and fired a broadside at Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, demanding to know how his service could ignore the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to heterosexual couples. "We find it difficult to understand," they wrote, "how the military is somehow exempt from abiding by federal law." It's one thing, the lawmakers implied, to be forced to accept openly gay men and women in uniform, and it's quite another for the service to embrace the idea of a pair of newlywed male sailors walking out of a Navy chapel under an archway of swords. Akin's chairmanship of the House's influential Seapower Subcommittee increased the stakes, suggesting that the Navy's cherished shipbuilding plans could be at risk.
Mabus got the message. On May 10, about 24 hours after Tidd's original memo surfaced, the Navy retreated, at least for now. Tidd issued a terse follow-up, saying his earlier missive was being "suspended until further notice pending additional legal and policy review." Tidd, chief of the Navy's 844 chaplains, has master's degrees in divinity, theology and national-security strategy. He's now being educated in politics.
The Navy, it seems, had jumped the gun by unilaterally deciding how to handle the delicate social issue before the Army, the Air Force and the rest of the Pentagon had figured out how to do so.
That decision is likely to be weeks off, if not months, which means no civil unions in Navy chapels for now.
The chief of Navy chaplains was ready for gay marriages