A vote on gay rights: The Senate's chance to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell'

Thursday, September 16, 2010

THE SENATE will have a historic and long overdue opportunity next week to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

This should not be a difficult choice. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have called for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," as has President Obama. Recent polls show that nearly 80 percent of the American people also favor repeal. The House and the Senate Armed Services Committee voted this year to abolish the Clinton-era measure and gave the Pentagon until Dec. 1 to release a plan to implement a repeal. The president, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen would have to certify that implementation of the repeal would not hurt recruitment, readiness or retention. But the plan will be meaningless unless the Senate also acts -- and soon.

If some senators need additional incentives for striking down the law, they should take note of a federal judge's decision last week that concluded that "don't ask, don't tell" is an unconstitutional incursion on the rights of gay and lesbian service members. The judge's decision elucidates what an affront the policy is to those who are forced to live in silence -- and in fear of dismissal -- as they risk life and limb for their country. Aspects of U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips's decision give pause, however. Is a judge the ideal person to make judgments about readiness and unit cohesion in the armed forces? This is a situation that cries out for a political solution, and soon, rather than waiting for years as this case wends its way through higher courts.

Yet procedural and political wrangling between the two parties threatens to derail the progress. Both sides should take a deep breath. Lawmakers should insist that the military not be a haven for bigotry, and they should heed the judgment of top military leaders, who would not embrace repeal if they believed it would hurt the country's defenses. If even this proves unconvincing, they should remember that if they fail to lead, the courts are poised to step in.

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