Obama Acts to Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

By Kenneth Jost
      President Obama has taken the final step necessary to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay and lesbian service members, effective Sept. 20.
      Acting according to conditions set by Congress in December in repealing the 1993 law, Obama certified to Congress on Friday (July 22) that ending the policy against military service by out gays and lesbians would be “consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the armed forces.”
      Obama sent letters of certification to the chairmen and ranking Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. As required under the December repeal, he acted on the recommendation of the top military leaders: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
      The law imposes a 60-day waiting period after the president’s certification before the policy is officially ended, but the military has been under a court order not to discharge gay or lesbian service members under the policy pending a ruling on its constitutionality.
      In a written statement, Obama said the action represented “the final major step toward ending the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law that undermines our military readiness and violates American principles of fairness and equality.”
      “As Commander in Chief, I have always been confident that our dedicated men and women in uniform would transition to a new policy in an orderly manner that preserves unit cohesion, recruitment, retention and military effectiveness,” Obama said.
      “Our military is ready for repeal,” the president continued. “As of September 20th, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country. Our military will no longer be deprived of the talents and skills of patriotic Americans just because they happen to be gay or lesbian.”
      The development on “don’t ask, don’t tell” came in a week with other advances for gay rights advocates. In Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first hearing on legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Meanwhile, New York prepared for the state’s first same-sex weddings on Sunday as a result of legislation passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on June 24.
      New York becomes the sixth, and largest, state to allow same-sex couples to marry. It already had decided to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Along with the District of Columbia, five other states recognize same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
      Obama had pushed to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” even while the administration defended the constitutionality of the policy in a challenge brought by Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group. A federal court judge in California ruled the policy unconstitutional, and the case is currently pending before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
      Despite the impending repeal, lawyers for Log Cabin Republicans are pressing for the case to continue because service members discharged under the policy continue to suffer “collateral consequences” as a result. The lawyers also argued that without a final court ruling, Congress could be free to re-institute the policy later.
      The administration has pleased gay rights groups by refusing to defend the constitutionality of DOMA in constitutional challenges pending in federal courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A federal court judge in Massachusetts has ruled the policy unconstitutional, and the case is pending before the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Connecticut case is pending in federal district court.
      Legislative repeal of DOMA is unlikely in the current congressional session. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week that he would not bring a repeal measure to a vote on the House floor. Gay rights advocates saw the Senate committee hearing as an important initial step to develop support for repealing the measure.

      For background, see Peter Katel, “Gays in the Military,” CQ Researcher, Sept. 18, 2009, updated Oct. 15, 2010; Kenneth Jost, “Gay Marriage Showdowns,” CQ Researcher, Sept. 26, 2008, updated Oct. 15, 2010 (subscription required).