From NYTimes.com: "The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay members of the military is unconstitutional, a federal judge in California ruled Thursday.
Judge Virginia A. Phillips of Federal District Court struck down the rule in an opinion issued late in the day. The policy was signed into law in 1993 as a compromise that would allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military.
The rule limits the military’s ability to ask about the sexual orientation of service members, and allows homosexuals to serve, as long as they do not disclose their orientation and do not engage in homosexual acts.
The plaintiffs challenged the law under the Fifth and First Amendments to the Constitution, and Judge Phillips agreed.
“The don’t ask, don’t tell act infringes the fundamental rights of United States service members in many ways,” she wrote. “In order to justify the encroachment on these rights, defendants faced the burden at trial of showing the don’t ask, don’t tell act was necessary to significantly further the government’s important interests in military readiness and unit cohesion. Defendants failed to meet that burden.”
The rule, she wrote in an 86-page opinion, has a “direct and deleterious effect” on the armed services.
The plaintiffs argued that the act violated the rights of service members in two ways.
First, they said, it violates their guarantee of substantive due process under the Fifth Amendment. The second restriction, the plaintiffs said, involves the free-speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Although those rights are diminished in the military, the judge wrote, the restrictions in the act still fail the constitutional test of being “reasonably necessary” to protect “a substantial government interest.”
The “sweeping reach” of the speech restrictions under the act, she said, “is far broader than is reasonably necessary to protect the substantial government interest at stake here.”
The decision is among a number of recent rulings that suggest a growing judicial skepticism about measures that discriminate against homosexuals, including rulings against California’s ban on same-sex marriage and a Massachusetts decision striking down a federal law forbidding the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage.
It will not change the policy right away; the judge called for the plaintiffs to submit a proposed injunction limiting the law by Sept. 16th. The defendants will submit their objections to the plan a week after that. Any decision would probably be stayed pending appeals.
The suit was brought by the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization. The group’s executive director, R. Clarke Cooper, pronounced himself “delighted” with the ruling, which he called “not just a win for Log Cabin Republican service members but all American service members.”
Those who would have preserved the rule were critical of the decision.
“It is hard to believe that a District Court-level judge in California knows more about what impacts military readiness than the service chiefs who are all on record saying the law on homosexuality in the military should not be changed,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative group. He called Judge Phillips a “judicial activist.”
As a candidate for president, Senator Barack Obama vowed to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Once elected, he remained critical of the policy but said it was the role of Congress to change the law; the Justice Department has continued to defend the law in court.
In February, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Congress to allow gays to serve openly by repealing the law. The House has voted for repeal, but the Senate has not yet acted.
Richard Socarides, a lawyer who served as an adviser to the Clinton administration on gay issues when the policy was passed into law, said the legal action was long overdue. “The president has said he opposes the policy, yet he has defended it in court. Now that he’s lost, and resoundingly so, he must stop enforcing it.”
The case, which was heard in July, involved testimony from six military officers who had been discharged because of the policy. One, Michael Almy, was an Air Force major who was serving his third tour of duty in Iraq when someone using his computer found at least one message to a man discussing homosexual conduct.
Another plaintiff, John Nicholson, was going through training for intelligence work in the Army and tried to conceal his sexual orientation by writing to a friend in Portuguese. A fellow service member who was also fluent in that language, however, read the letter on his desk and rumors spread throughout his unit.
When Mr. Nicholson asked a platoon sergeant to help quash the rumors, the sergeant instead informed his superiors, who initiated discharge proceedings.