in New York
President Bill Clinton faces fresh controversy over homosexual rights after a federal judge yesterday overturned his "don't ask, don't tell" policy of allowing gays to serve in the military on condition they keep their sexuality hidden.
Ruling in favour of six gay service members in a New York district court, Judge Eugene Nickerson condemned the measure as discriminatory and in violation of constitutional rights to free speech. "The policy is not only inherently deceptive, it also offers powerful inducements to lie," he said.
The Clinton administration is expected to appeal against the decision, the first constitutional challenge to the policy since its inception last year. Experts predict it will go all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Yesterday's ruling will give gay-rights activists new ammunition to attack Mr Clinton for failing to deliver fully on his 1992 election-campaign promise to end all restrictions on homosexuals serving in the military. The pledge helped garner strong gay support for his election.
President Clinton's early weeks in the White House were tarnished by emotional debate on the issue. After confronting furious opposition to his proposal from Congress and the Pentagon, Mr Clinton eventually came forward with the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise.
The military is no longer authorised to inquire after the sexuality of recruits. Service members can in theory be homosexual; however, they face an honourable discharge if they reveal that they are gay or engage in homosexual acts.
In the year the policy has been in place, the Pentagon says 200 have been discharged for open homosexuality. Under the old regime, which allowed rooting out of gays, 17,000 were expelled from 1980 to last year.
The court challenge was brought by six active US service members who claimed that the policy was violating their right to free speech.The government argued that "unit cohesion" could be imperilled if service members are aware that some among them are homosexual.