Judge halts 'Don't ask don't tell' policy

Singer Lady Gaga visited Maine on the eve of a key Senate vote to urge its two U.S. senators to help repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays.
By Jerry Markon and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 11:34 AM

A federal judge ordered an immediate end Tuesday to the Pentagon's enforcement of its ban on openly gay service members, rejecting the Obama administration's argument that an injunction to stop the "don't ask, don't tell" policy might harm military readiness.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips in California marks the first time that the controversial policy - which forbids the military to ask about a service member's sexual orientation but retains a ban on gays serving openly - has been halted.

Leaders of the group that brought the suit celebrated the injunction, the latest in a series of recent court rulings that expand the rights of gay Americans to marry and serve in uniform.

"This decision is also a victory for all who support a strong national defense," said Christian Berle, acting executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. "No longer will our military be compelled to discharge service members with valuable skills and experience because of an archaic policy mandating irrational discrimination."

Phillips issued a ruling last month declaring "don't ask, don't tell'' unconstitutional, saying it has a "direct and deleterious effect" on the armed services. She then issued Tuesday's injunction banning enforcement of the policy after considering an argument by the Justice Department that such an "abrupt change" would affect military operations in a time of war.

The Justice Department would not comment on whether the government will appeal the injunction, but a senior military official said a decision is expected within several days. The case puts the administration in an awkward position, because the Justice Department has defended "don't ask, don't tell" in court - drawing opposition from gay rights groups - even though President Obama supports a repeal of the policy.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates declined to answer directly when asked Wednesday whether the administration should appeal. But he said he wants to proceed with his preferred approach: to allow the Defense Department to complete, by Dec. 1, a review of how to integrate gay men and lesbians in the armed forces, followed by an act of Congress that would overturn the don't-ask, don't-tell law.

"I feel very strongly that this is an action that needs to be taken by the Congress, and that it is an action that requires careful preparation and a lot of training," Gates told reporters on board a military aircraft as he flew to Brussels for a NATO meeting.

Gates said the Pentagon needed until Dec. 1 to study and resolve questions such as whether heterosexual troops would be required to share housing with gays and whether the military would be required to provide benefits for partners of gay service members.

"This is a very complex business. It has enormous consequences for our troops," Gates said. "As I have said from the very beginning, there should be legislation, and that legislation should be informed by the review we have underway."

It is unclear how the military would enforce Phillips's injunction or what its impact would be on the armed forces. The ruling not only halts future investigations and proceedings to discharge gay service members under "don't ask, don't tell," it stops all such efforts now underway.

A senior military official said "it's too soon to tell" the effect on readiness, while another said the Pentagon will probably wait to see whether the Justice Department seeks a stay of Tuesday's ruling before issuing "implementing instructions." The Pentagon is expected to complete a study by Dec. 1 on how to integrate openly gay men and lesbians into the ranks. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the ruling had just been handed down.

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