Gates issues stricter rules for discharges of gay, lesbian troops

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is requiring top Pentagon civilians to personally sign off on any discharges of gay and lesbian troops.

Gates has directed the secretaries of the military services to personally approve the discharge of military members under the ban and coordinate with the Pentagon's general counsel, Jeh Johnson, and the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, Clifford Stanley.

The defense chief's directive comes at a time of uncertainty for the fate of the Clinton-era ban on openly gay people serving in the military. The directive could make it harder for gays and lesbians to be discharged. Until now, the discharge decisions were made by uniformed officers and other, less senior civilians.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday issued a temporary suspension of a federal judge's halt to the ban on openly gay people serving in the military. The Obama administration asked the appeals court to issue a temporary stay on the injunction of the "Don't ask, don't tell" law.

That stay is set to expire Oct. 25. The appeals court will have to decide at that point whether to extend the suspension while the Obama administration appeals the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips.

Phillips last week barred the enforcement of the "Don't ask, don't tell" law. Phillips ordered the Department of Defense to halt investigations and discharges of military members stemming from the Clinton-era law. The case that won the nationwide injunction is Log Cabin Republicans v. United States of America. The federal judge last month issued a final ruling that "Don't ask, don't tell" was unconstitutional.

Phillips this week refused to suspend the order to halt the ban on openly gay people serving in the military, prompting the Department of Justice to make its case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pentagon officials said that they would abide by the injunction, but now with the suspension in place, the ban is once again in effect.

Gay-rights groups have welcomed Gates's new directive, but caution gay and lesbians members of the military not to come out.

“This important change could dramatically reduce DADT ['Don't ask, don't tell'] discharges," said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "But this Pentagon guidance memo does not end DADT. It is still in place, and service members should not come out."

Alexander Nicholson, the executive director of Servicemembers United, said Gates's move brings more "consistency and fairness" to the Pentagon's enforcement of the law, but it is still a "Band-Aid" to a "flawed, failed and fundamentally unjust policy."

"The Pentagon should stop burdening its most senior officials with more paperwork and simply support an immediate end to this outdated law," he said.

Gay-rights groups are rankled by the Obama administration's decision to challenge the judge's decision. Obama promised to repeal the ban during the 2008 presidential election campaign. The Pentagon is now reviewing the implications repeal would have on the troops. That review is due Dec. 1. By deciding to appeal the California judge's decision, Obama is putting pressure on Congress to scrap the law.

Lawmakers are in the middle of a tense midterm election season in which Republicans are expected to gain a large number of seats in the House and erode the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. That could make any agreement on repealing the law a tough proposition in Congress, since most Republicans are opposed to repeal.  

The House has successfully included legislation to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the 2011 defense authorization bill, but the Senate has yet to act on that legislation.