President Obama Signs NDAA, a Mixed Outcome

The quote from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) is a bit of a catchphrase here at the Religious Action Center. It is our proof text for the many long struggles toward justice in which we engage. However, it can be a difficult idea to fully grasp. For one thing, scholars have long debated just what the repetition of the word tzedek – justice – really means. At organizations like the RAC, which works on some 60 issues, perhaps it means that we must pursue multiple justices at once. We must seek this justice and also that justice at the same time – a task riddled with difficulties in the modern era of omnibus legislation.

One such difficulty played out this week when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013. As we have written on this blog before, this year’s NDAA contained several concerning sections about the rights of service-members and detainees as well as a major victory for servicewomen and reproductive rights.

The version of the NDAA that the House passed last May contained two discriminatory sections against LGBT service-members: one banned the performance of same-sex marriages on military property, another prevented the military from taking negative personnel action against people who discriminated against their LGBT colleagues. The first provision was removed in conference with the Senate bill, however the second remained in an altered form, requiring the military to accommodate the deeply held moral beliefs of all its service-members.

Many in the LGBT rights community have spoken out against this provision and the potential damage it could do. As Dena Sher at the ACLU wrote, “[this provision] could reopen longstanding prohibitions against harassment, give rise to claims of a right to proselytize other service members as well as civilians in occupied areas, and could lead to claims affecting health care services or anti-harassment training.”

The conference report also included an extension of the ban on transferring detainees from Guantanamo for another year. This could eliminate the President’s best opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to close the prison and end a massive violation of human rights.

The President opposed both of these provisions and said as much when he threatened to veto the bill last month. He restated his opposition in a signing statement noting, “Though I continue to oppose certain sections of the Act, the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore.”

Complicating our reaction to the President’s decision is the fact that the NDAA wasn’t all bad. It also contained a provision known as the “Shaheen Amendment,” which was a major victory for reproductive rights supporters, including the RAC. The Shaheen Amendment closed a loophole in abortion access available to members of the military receiving their health coverage through TRICARE, the Department of Defense’s insurance plan. Under existing TRICARE policies, abortions are not covered in cases of rape or incest – merely in cases of the life of the mother. This is below other federal health care standards, and is all the more significant given the extremely high rate of sexual assault in the military. The Shaheen Amendment rectifies this disparity and brings TRICARE policies in line with other governmental health insurance plans.

And so we return to the problem of “justice, justice you shall pursue.” How do we pursue reproductive justice for servicewomen while fighting the injustice of bigotry and human rights challenges when the two are contained in the same bill? How do we seek both justices at the same time and how do we decide to make sacrifices and compromises when certain gains are possible? These are the questions we must be thinking about as we hail the passage of the Shaheen Amendment, decry the continued human rights violations and look toward future struggles.


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