It is always a proud moment when Congress acts on behalf of tolerance and equality. One of those moments is scheduled to take place today as the Senate takes up the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Since the policy's establishment in 1993, more than 14,000 gay and lesbian military service members have been discharged not for any lapse in duty but because their homosexuality was discovered. Giving gays and lesbians the opportunity to openly serve their country will ultimately enhance America's military readiness and its standing as a nation that embraces diversity rather than discrimination.
Democrats initially wrapped the repeal into a huge defense authorization bill. But when that effort was waylaid, the repeal was offered as a stand-alone measure and passed the House on Wednesday.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid needs a handful of Republicans today to join almost all Democrats and the Senate's two independents for the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. He appears to have those votes for one last push for repeal before Republicans take control of the House in January and doom the legislation's chances.
Republican opposition is strong, even though eight in 10 Americans as well as a significant number of the military's leadership and rank and file have declared support for repeal. In the view of Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would have little negative impact on military readiness while adding to the integrity of the force by no longer forcing soldiers to hide their sexual orientation. This general acceptance of gay and lesbian troops by fellow soldiers is reflected in the results of the Pentagon's recent survey, which found that 70 percent of military personnel and their family members believed there would be "positive, mixed or no effect" from gays and lesbians serving openly.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also supports a legislative repeal, particularly since it would explicitly give the military time to prepare and train soldiers for the policy shift. Gates is concerned that a federal judge's recent ruling that "don't ask, don't tell" is unconstitutional — a ruling on hold pending an appeal — could accelerate a court-ordered repeal before the military is ready.
That wouldn't be the first time the courts have had to stand up for the rights of minority groups against discrimination by the political branches. But it appears this time that Congress will do what is right and tear down a barrier to equal treatment for gay and lesbian troops. It is an opportunity that should not be squandered.