WASHINGTON — The Obama administration weighed a quick appeal of a judge's order abruptly allowing gays to serve openly in the military as Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on Wednesday of "enormous consequences" for men and women in uniform if the ruling stands.
A day after the federal judge in California ordered the Pentagon to cease enforcement of the "don't ask, don't tell" law, Gates told reporters traveling with him in Europe that repealing the law should be a question for Congress — and only after the Pentagon completes its study of the issue.
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."
The Justice Department is considering whether to appeal the 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 U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips turns down the request, the Justice Department may 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.
In Tuesday's ruling, 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.
When asked by a reporter whether the ruling has had any impact yet, a two-star U.S. Army commander in eastern Afghanistan said it was unlikely that his soldiers even knew about the court order.
"If that law is changed, they'll abide by the law," but "that's probably the farthest thing from their mind" as they fight, said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
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.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, face disagreement by some senior officers on whether lifting the ban would cause serious disruption at a time when troops are fighting in Afghanistan and winding down a long war in Iraq.
The incoming Marine commandant, Gen. James Amos, and his predecessor, Gen. James Conway, have told Congress that they think most Marines would be uncomfortable with the change and that the current policy works.
In part to resolve the question of how the troops feel, Gates has ordered a study due Dec. 1 that includes a survey of troops and their families.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins accused Phillips of "playing politics" with national defense.
"Once again, an activist federal judge is using the military to advance a liberal social agenda, disregarding the views of all four military service chiefs and the constitutional role of Congress," he said.
Perkins urged the Justice Department "to fulfill its obligation to defend the law vigorously through the appeals process."