Gays renew attack on army curbs

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The Independent Online

in Washington

Gay and civil rights groups plan to use this week's ruling by a New York federal judge as a platform to mount an all-out assault on curbs on homosexuals in the armed forces, sweeping away the carefully crafted formula that has been in operation for barely a year.

The government is certain to appeal against Judge Eugene Nickerson's decision that the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise was an unconstitutional infringement of free speech and, as such, discriminated against gays.

The verdict only affects the six servicemen who filed the law suit, but so broad are its implications that the case probably will have to be settled by the Supreme Court. "This is a good case to go all the way," said Matthew Cole, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It is about the constitutionality of the issue, pure and simple."

Under "don't ask, don't tell," gay members of the military are still discharged if they commit homosexual acts, but are permitted to serve provided they keep their sexual preferences secret. But in his 39-page ruling, Judge Nickerson attacked efforts to distinguish between sexual orientation and "a propensity to act on such orientation" as "nothing less than Orwellian''.

As of yesterday, the White House had uttered not a word on the ruling - understandably so, given the trouble President Bill Clinton brought upon his head by speaking up on the issue in 1993, against the advice of more experienced advisers.

The furore that instantly erupted cemented Mr Clinton's reputation as a Sixties liberal and only worsened his relations with a military establishment already deeply suspicious of the draft-dodging past of its new commander- in-chief. Compromise was reached in the "don't ask, don't tell" formula, which came into force in February last year. But civil rights groups contend, and the Pentagon tacitly concedes, that the net effect has been small.

"It's an inconsistent policy, whose enforcement varies," a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force spokesman said yesterday. In practice, things were "virtually unchanged". The Pentagon insists it is working.

Since 1991, some 2,936 servicemen and women have been discharged for homosexuality, but numbers are dropping every year.