The Obama administration’s decision to open up all combat roles to women has led to a heated debate over whether women should have to register for the draft and has sparked both legislation and legal action that could change the Selective Service’s rules.
It remains to be seen what the impact of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s December order compelling all services to allow women into combat roles will be on Selective Service registration, which is currently only required for men. Dual lawsuits are challenging the constitutionality of the Selective Service Act, and new legislation in Congress also seeks to encourage debate on women’s role in the draft.
Reps. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.) and Ryan Zinke (R., Mt.), both of whom opposed the administration’s decision to open up combat roles to women, introduced a bill last week that would require women ages 18 to 26 to register for the Selective Service. The lawmakers, both of them military veterans, said that Carter’s order forced the issue.
"This discussion wouldn’t be happening if the administration didn’t force the services to integrate combat arms by decree. And it’s hard to find anyone who is enthusiastic about compelling draft registration for women, but the administration up to now has made this all about equality and fairness," Hunter, a Marine reserve officer, told the Washington Free Beacon in a statement. "So in that regard, the decision to integrate combat units without exception has prompted the necessity to now discuss whether women should be required to register with the selective service."
"This is the dilemma that the administration created and obviously it failed to think things through all the way," Hunter added.
In announcing the legislation, Hunter said that he may well vote against his own bill but that lawmakers regardless need to have the discussion about women and the draft.
Even if the legislation makes no progress, Carter’s order has also given fuel to lawsuits that accuse the Military Selective Service Act of being discriminatory.
Last July, a New Jersey mother filed a suit on behalf of her daughter in federal court against the Selective Service System and its director. The plaintiff, Allison Kyle, argued that women should be required to register for the draft because the Pentagon in 2013 ended the ban on women serving in combat roles. While a previous Supreme Court ruling, Rostker vs. Goldberg, held that the male-only requirement of the Selective Service did not violate the Constitution because women were restricted from combat roles, Kyle argued that the ruling is no longer valid.
"With both males and females available for such roles today, the two sexes are now similarly situated for draft registration purposes, and there is no legitimate reason for the government to discriminate against the female class, so equal protection applies," the complaint read.
A second lawsuit, introduced in 2013 and initially dismissed by a California federal district court, has regained life following Carter’s announcement opening combat jobs to female service members. A California appeals court heard arguments in the suit, brought by the National Coalition for Men against the Selective Service System, just days after Carter revealed the decision last December.
"Things have changed," one of the judges with the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit remarked during the hearing. "Right now the position is that all combat jobs are open to women, no?"
Ultimately, the court will decide whether or not the case will be dismissed or go to trial.
The issue sparked discussion at the Republican presidential primary debate Saturday night, days after the chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps both indicated they would support requiring women to register for the Selective Service now that the administration has opened frontline combat roles to women.
GOP candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all signaled that they would support opening the Selective Service to women in the wake of Carter’s decision.
"I have no problem whatsoever with people of either gender serving in combat so long as the minimum requirements necessary to do the job are not compromised," Rubio said Saturday. "I support that, and obviously, now that that is the case, I do believe that Selective Service should be opened up for both men and women in case a draft is ever instituted."
GOP candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) regarded his fellow candidates’ support of the idea as shocking and dangerous.
"We have had enough with political correctness—especially in the military," Cruz told New Hampshire voters Sunday. "Political correctness is dangerous, and the idea that we would draft our daughters, to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close contact—I think is wrong, it is immoral, and if I am president, we ain’t doing it."
Carter himself has indicated that he expects Congress to weigh whether women should be required to register for the draft given the combat role change.
"It stands to reason it'll be taken up by the Congress because of the decision we've made," the Pentagon chief said last Wednesday, according to the Hill. Carter further encouraged women to "step forward" into combat positions.
Carter ordered the military to open up combat roles to female service members after a Marine Corps study found that women were injured twice as often as men, used weapons less accurately in simulated combat conditions, and were less effective at evacuating injured troops from the battlefield. The defense secretary rejected an appeal from the Marines to keep certain ground combat jobs male-only.
"For the Marine Corps … the biggest issue is whether the [gender] integration plan stands to compromise their lethality and combat effectiveness at the small unit level, so if there’s a risk here, that’s where it is. And that’s why the Marine Corps and the special operations community took the position they did," Hunter said Tuesday.
"But they too recognize that if the dictate is about fairness and equality, then it’s only logical that the draft registration be opened also—which was endorsed by the Army and Marine Corps."