WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Wednesday of “enormous consequences” for men and women in uniform if a judge’s order abruptly allowing gays to serve openly in the military is allowed to stand.
The Obama administration may well ask for a stay of the ruling while it appeals. Justice Department officials worked behind the scenes on their response into Wednesday night with no word on when there would be an announcement. The uncertainty of the next step left gay-rights activists as well as the military in limbo over the status of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
A day after a federal judge in California ordered the Pentagon to cease enforcing the law, Gates told reporters traveling with him in Europe that repeal should be a question for Congress – and only after the Pentagon completes a study of the impact of lifting the ban, which is due Dec. 1.
Allowing gays to serve openly “is an action that requires careful preparation and a lot of training,” Gates said. “It has enormous consequences for our troops.”
In Tuesday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips ordered the military “immediately to suspend and discontinue any investigation” or other proceeding to dismiss gay service members. The 1993 law says gays may serve in the military but only if they keep secret their sexual orientation.
Phillips wrote that the law “infringes the fundamental rights” of current and prospective service members.
Gay-rights advocates cautioned gay service members to avoid revealing their sexuality for fear that the Phillips ruling could be tossed out on appeal and they would be left open to being discharged.
Defense Department officials would not say what was happening to current discharge cases, or even confirm how many pending cases there might be. A Pentagon spokesman, Col. David Lapan, said no written guidance had been issued to commanders on how to deal with the court order.
The Justice Department is considering whether to appeal the Phillips ruling, and its first response may well be another trip to the judge’s courtroom in Riverside, Calif., to seek a stay or temporary freeze. If Phillips turns down the request, the Justice Department probably would then turn to the federal appeals court in California.
If the government does appeal, that would put the Obama administration in the position of continuing to defend a law it opposes.
Gates, who supports lifting the ban once the Pentagon puts in place a plan for minimizing disruptions, said that besides developing new training for troops, regulations will have to be revised.