Former Sen. Chuck Hagel affirmed his commitment to equality for gay servicemembers during his Senate confirmation hearing today.
President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, the Nebraska Republican fielded a number of questions on open service today. Hagel reiterated his commitment to addressing the challenges that remain for gay servicemembers in the wake of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
"As I've discussed with many of you in our meetings, I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members," Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Asked by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) if he would ensure discrimination is not permitted by the Department of Defense while tolerating religious beliefs, Hagel affirmed his commitment to do so.
"All men and women deserve the same rights," Hagel said, adding that he would ensure such policies are enforced through the entire chain of command.
Addressing the "conscience clause" of the National Defense Authorization Act, Hagel said that while chaplains should not be forced to perform same-sex weddings as stipulated by Pentagon regulations, he said a same-sex military couple should not be denied the right to wed in a military chapel.
OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson lauded Hagel's answers in a statement released shortly after Hagel's hearing concluded eight hours after it began.
"After two years of equivocation and delay by Pentagon leadership, it is gratifying to see Senator Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous support for our service members and their families we saw today," Robinson said. "It is an historic day when issues critical to gay and lesbian service members and their families take center stage in a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense."
More than a year after the repeal of the ban on out gay servicemembers, a number of benefits are still denied to same-sex military couples. Although some benefits are contingent on the successful repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, many, including equal access to housing benefits, military ID cards, legal services and other spousal privileges, could be granted by Panetta independently making various regulatory changes.
Unaddressed during the hearing were nondiscrimination and equal opportunity protections for LGBT servicemembers. According to Robinson, "If Senator Hagel is confirmed, he must use his authority to ban discrimination and guarantee equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of the military."
[Image: Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee (Courtesy of C-SPAN).]