The U.S. military, for the first time, is allowing its recruiters to accept openly gay and lesbian applicants.
The historic move follows a series of decisions by a federal judge in California, Virginia Phillips, who ruled last month that the "don't ask, don't tell" law violates the equal protection and First Amendment rights of service members. On Oct. 12, she ordered the military to stop enforcing the law.
President Barack Obama has said that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy "will end, and it will end on my watch." But the Department of Justice, following its tradition of defending laws passed by Congress, has fought efforts by the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization, to overturn the policy.
Phillips ruled Tuesday that she was denying requests by the government to maintain the status quo during the appeals process. The Pentagon has stated its intent to file an appeal in case of such a ruling. But meanwhile, it has started complying with Phillips' instructions while the dispute over her orders plays out.
New instructions were e-mailed to recruiters Friday for handling situations in which applicants volunteer their sexual orientation. Recruiters do not ask about sexual orientation and have not since the "don't ask, don't tell" law went into effect in the 1990s.
Recruiters were also told that they must inform the applicants that the moratorium on "don't ask, don't tell" could be reversed.
R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, applauded the Pentagon decision as "a huge deal."
Cooper noted, however, that under the new rules, a service member who announces his or her sexual orientation "does run the risk of discharge if the ruling is overturned — if there is a successful appeal by the Department of Justice."
"They do need to be aware of that possibility," he said.
Cooper, a member of the Army Reserve, said that he was taking part in war games last week at Fort Huachuca in Arizona when the injunction was issued, and that he was surprised by the lack of visible opposition or outcry.
He likened it to a "giant shoulder shrug of 'so what.' " Most of the people he was with, he added, were younger members of the service, and "a few people actually thought repeal had already occurred."
Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to address a question about whether a recruit who volunteered that he was gay during the current suspension of the law might face expulsion from the military if the decision were appealed.
She called that situation hypothetical and said only that recruiters have been reminded that "they need to set expectations by informing the applicant that a reversal for the 'don't ask, don't tell' law may occur."
A prominent opponent of service by gay and lesbian people dismissed the Pentagon shift as "a political ploy."
Elaine Donnelly, the founder of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative organization that opposes gay service in the military, said Congress, under the Constitution, has the authority to draft rules for the military.
The Department of Justice, she added, acted properly by filing its request for a stay.
Military recruiters were adjusting to the change in policy Tuesday.
Dan Choi, who was discharged from the Army under "don't ask, don't tell," tried to re-enlist at the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Manhattan. Photographers and reporters crowded around the door, and they, in turn, were ringed by tourists and bystanders.
Choi, who emerged from the station wearing a dark dress shirt, blue jeans and a black pea coat, said, "They're processing me."