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Don't ask, don't tell

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gay military personnelBy John Terrett

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has warned that a court-ordered halt to a ban on openly gay military personnel could have "enormous consequences".

A day after a judge halted the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (or DADT), Gates said he'd prefer that Congress, not a court, settle the issue.

Under the policy, gay people can serve in the military but face expulsion if their sexuality is revealed.

Here at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, you get the impression that people living near this army base don't really worry too much about DADT. This man told me:

"I'm a retired army lieutenant colonel. What people do in their spare time has no effect on their ability to serve in the military."

A federal judge in California issued an injunction against the 17-year-old rule on the grounds it restricted free speech, lacked legal recourse, and damaged recruiting opportunities at a time of two wars.
 
The US justice department has 60 days to appeal, otherwise the ruling stands.
 
Gay rights activists are delighted of course, but for President Barack Obama it's a bit of a problem. He's consistently said he wants Congress to deal with the issue, not the courts.
 
In a street outside the Fort Belvoir base another passerby said:

"I think there are political pressures from both sides and it's a very divisive issue and Congress in its current state of deadlock has not deemed it something worth fighting over."

The problem for Obama is: does he appeal the decision and risk turning a major plank of his policy over to the courts system - possibly even the US Supreme Court, which is weighted with conservative justices?
 
Or does he let the 60 days run out so that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is permanently blocked, and risk alienating those among his supporters who would prefer Congress dealt with the issue? A woman I met on the street said:

"Only the military can figure out how people can co-exist whether male, female, gay, straight, whatever. Once they can co-exist, then I think things will be fine."

If "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" doesn't feature highly in the lives of the people of Fort Belvoir and the surrounding area, the same cannot be said of gay rights activists.

They're spending the next 60 days monitoring the Pentagon - 10km to the north of here - to make sure pending cases of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" are halted as the judge requested.

John Terrett is a Washington-based correspondent for Al Jazeera English.


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