Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday took aim at the military service academies’ diversity and inclusion efforts as a potential distraction from war fighting prowess, and pledged to force changes in the future to end those practices.

But military leaders and Democratic representatives defended the work as critical to force readiness and national security, and accused Republicans of inflating how much time and focus is spent on the effort.

The scene at the House Armed Services Committee mirrored hearings in recent months where GOP lawmakers have decried what they see as “destructive, political ideology” permeating the armed forces. That has prompted growing tensions among members of the panel, with each side accusing the other of damaging the non-partisan nature of the military.

Wednesday’s hearing was prompted in part by the Supreme Court decision last month striking down affirmative action in college admissions but exempting the military education institutions “in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

Several Republican lawmakers voiced concerns about the ruling, saying that it allows unfair racial divisions to persist at the academies.

“I believe race-based admissions in any form violate the Constitution,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. and chairman of the committee’s personnel panel. “The military service academies must ensure immutable characteristics like race and color have no bearing on a candidate’s ability to tackle the rigors of military life.”

Democrats also voiced concerns but for the opposite reason, arguing that only allowing the military to develop a diverse officer corps hurts higher education as a whole.

“It’s advantageous for us to embrace diversity,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “It makes us stronger, to embrace diversity. Our country is diverse, so we should reflect that diversity.”

While Republicans on the panel peppered academy leaders with questions about terms like “non-binary” and “demi-gender,” Democrats offered support for classes on equality and programs to boost minority enrollment in the services.

For their part, the service academy leaders defended their practices as critical to shaping the fighting force and allowing young officers to challenge themselves with unfamiliar and unconventional viewpoints as part of their learning experience.

“We must embrace diversity as a strength,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, superintendent of the Air Force Academy. “Our military is comprised of people from every congressional district, every community and every demographic in America. Our cadets will have to lead people who don’t look like them, don’t think like them, don’t talk like them.”

House Republican lawmakers have already included several legislative provisions to roll back diversity and inclusion training in the military as part of the annual defense authorization bill. That includes language that would end affirmative action in academy admissions.

Democrats in the chamber largely opposed those efforts, and Democratic senators have vowed to strike the provisions during negotiations later this year.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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