Congress votes to end ban on gays in U.S. military

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress today voted to repeal the ban against gays serving openly in  the U.S. military and sent the measure to President Barack  Obama for his signature.
The Senate voted 65-31 to end 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t  tell,” policy just after breaking through a Republican  procedural roadblock which had held up the White House-backed  legislation. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill  earlier this week as lawmakers pushed to complete their work  before the new Congress is seated in January.
Obama is expected to sign it into law next week, his  spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
“By ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ no longer will our  nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic  Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of  exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay. And no  longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order  to serve the country they love,” Obama said in a statement  before the final vote.
Obama vowed during his 2008 presidential campaign to end  the ban, which he denounced as unfair, unwise and a violation  of basic human rights. He had been criticized by liberal groups  who said he had failed to push hard enough to end the policy.
More than 13,000 men and women have been expelled from the  U.S. military under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allows gays  to serve in the armed forces as long as they keep their sexual  orientation secret. Many of those dismissed have said they hope  to return to service.
Former Air Force Major Mike Almy, at a press conference  with Senate leaders following the vote, said he was dismissed  after another officer read his private e-mails to loved ones  back home. He faced mortar attacks while commanding a unit of  200 in Iraq and was recommended to be promoted to Lieutenant  Colonel.
“There is nothing more that I want than to resume my career  as an officer and a leader in the Air Force,” he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other supporters of the  repeal had argued that Congress needed to act if the military  was to have time for an orderly transition to the new policy, A  U.S. court-ordered end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be  disruptive, he said.
Once the bill is signed into law, the Pentagon will have an  undetermined amount of time — possibly months — to educate  service members and prepare for the policy change before it is  ready to ‘certify’ the repeal.
When the repeal is certified, there will be another 60-day  period before the new policy of allowing gays to openly serve  takes effect. Until that time “don’t ask don’t tell” is still  in effect.
“The only method of repeal that places the timing of the  repeal and control of implementation in the hands of the  military leaders is enactment of this bill,” said Senator Carl  Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Repeal of the military service policy was one of the last  acts of the Democratic-led Congress. Republicans won control of  the House in the November elections and narrowed the Democratic  majority in the Senate.
IMPACT ON COMBAT TROOPS
Opponents of gays serving openly in the military argue that  lifting the ban would undermine order and discipline and harm  unit cohesiveness, especially among combat troops.
Republican opposition has been largely led by Obama’s 2008  White House challenger, Senator John McCain, a former Navy  pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain said it may be too early to end the ban and  challenged a recent Pentagon study that forecast little impact  if the policy were lifted. In a Senate speech, he argued  against imposing a change while the country is at war.
“This debate is not about the broader social issues that   are being discussed in our society, but what is in the best  interest of our military at a time of war,” McCain said.
Those favoring repeal contend the ban is discriminatory,  denies the military needed soldiers and, in Obama’s words,  “violates fundamental American principles of fairness.”
While Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the  military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocate repeal, there has  been uneven support in the military.
Marine Corps Commandant James Amos, for instance, has  warned that ending the policy could be dangerous while the  United States is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Begun in 1993 at the request of then-Democratic President  Bill Clinton, a move that sparked an intense debate as most  Americans at that time opposed gays serving openly. But  attitudes have changed, the majority of Americans now support  ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” and the policy has  faced increased court challenges in recent years.
A federal judge in California in October imposed an  injunction against enforcement of the ban, ruling it a  violation of free-speech and due-process rights.
But the following week, a federal appeals court ruled that  the Pentagon could reinstate the policy, pending further court  action.

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