A federal judge ordered the U.S. military Tuesday to stop enforcing the "don't ask, don't tell" law that prohibits openly gay and bisexual soldiers from military service.
Judge Virginia Phillips of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California wrote that the 17-year-old policy "infringes the fundamental rights of United States service members and prospective service members" and violates their rights of due process and freedom of speech. She issued an injunction banning enforcement of the law and ordered the military "to suspend and discontinue" any investigations or proceedings to dismiss members of the armed services.
Tuesday's ruling, in Log Cabin Republicans vs. United States of America, could have a sweeping impact because it would apply to all U.S. service members. Christian Berle, acting executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization, applauded the judge's action, saying it would make the armed forces stronger.
"Lifting the ban on open service will allow our armed forces to recruit the best and brightest," Berle said.
Alexander Nicholson, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, said "we sort of won the lottery," considering the breadth of the decision. Nicholson is executive director of Servicemembers United, an organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans.
The government has 60 days to file an appeal. "We're reviewing it," said Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
The government is expected, however, to appeal the injunction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to try to keep it from taking effect pending an appeal of the overall case.
Such a move would carry risks, said Richard Socarides, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay rights issues.
"There will be an increasingly high price to pay politically for enforcing a law which 70 percent of the American people oppose and a core Democratic constituency abhors," he said.
Critics of the ruling include Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a proponent of the don't ask, don't tell policy, who accused Phillips of "playing politics with our national defense."
In a statement, Perkins, a former Marine, said that "once again, an activist federal judge is using the military to advance a liberal social agenda" and noted that there was still "strong opposition" to changing the law from military leaders.
Perkins predicted that the decision would have wide-ranging effects in the coming elections. "This move will only further the desire of voters to change Congress," he said.
The don't ask, don't tell law was originally proposed as a compromise measure to loosen military policies regarding homosexuality. Departing from a decades-old policy of banning service by gay, lesbian and bisexual recruits, the new law allowed service and prohibited superiors from asking about sexual orientation. But the law also held that service members could be dismissed from the military if they revealed their sexual orientation or engaged in homosexual acts.
Since 1993, about 12,500 gay men and lesbians have been discharged from the service when their sexual orientation became known, because either they or others made it public.
The law has long been a point of contention, and President Barack Obama has asked Congress to repeal it. In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also asked Congress to do so.
The House voted for repeal in May, but last month the Senate voted not to take up the bill.
Phillips, who was appointed by Clinton, declared the law unconstitutional in an opinion issued Sept. 9. She then sought recommendations from the parties as to what kind of legal relief should follow. The Log Cabin Republicans recommended a nationwide injunction. The Department of Justice recommended narrower action.