The U.S. Congress has taken a major step forward towards repealing a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military. Gay rights advocates and civil rights groups cheered the vote, while some conservative religious groups and some Republican lawmakers said repealing the ban would be harmful to morale and to the readiness of the U.S. military.
The House of Representatives voted 234 to 194 late Thursday to approve an amendment aimed at ending the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy established in 1993 that allows homosexuals to serve in the U.S. military in secret, but expels them if they reveal their sexual orientation. The vote came only a few hours after a similar vote to repeal the ban by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gay rights advocates called the two votes Thursday "a watershed moment" in their efforts to put an end to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which they say discriminates against homosexuals who want to serve their country.
Jarrod Chlapowski is a veteran who served in South Korea and is the military adviser to the Human Rights Campaign gay rights group. "It is such a momentous occasion to see all these members of Congress coming out in support, I mean having a majority of 234 votes in the House is just incredible. It is very surreal right now, particularly for people I know who are just waiting to go back in [to the military]," he said.
Under the amendment, the repeal would not go into effect until after a review by senior U.S. military leaders, due to be completed in December. The repeal of the ban also has to be passed by the full U.S Senate before it can become law, and requires that the president, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all agree that the change will not hurt the military's ability to fight.
Repubican lawmakers opposed the amendment, saying Congress should wait until the review process set up by the Obama administration is complete.
Tom McClusky is Senior Vice President of Family Research Council Action, the legislative arm of the conservative religious group, Family Research Council. McClusky said President Obama and other Democrats are trying to push the repeal through Congress for political reasons. "It affects readiness, it affects retention and it affects recruitment, and until that is found to be different, the president and Congress has no right and should not be moving forward in changing the policy," he said.
One of the amendment's sponsors, Democrative Representative Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania said the U.S. military needs all the able-bodied troops it can get to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "When I served in Baghdad, my team did not care whether a fellow soldier was straight or gay. We cared if they could fire their M-4 assault rifle or run a convoy down Ambush alley. Could they do their job so that everybody in our unit would come home safely?," he said.
President Barack Obama has been seeking to repeal the ban, and said in a statement the legislation to repeal the ban would make the U.S. military "even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has publicly made clear that he supports allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military, said he would have preferred that Congress waited until after the Pentagon's review is complete.
A recent opinion survey by CNN found that 70 percent of Americans are in favor of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.