Monday, July 20, 2009

Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

LT Dan Choi as a Cadet at West Point, from his website
When I was an Air Force chaplain, I tended to be more than a little ‘evangelical’ about talking up the military chaplaincy as a vocational path with other Reform rabbis and with rabbinical students. In the military service, most of the Jewish chaplains are Orthodox rabbis. This is not to disparage the great work my Orthodox colleagues do in the military chaplaincy, but I believe that since the non-Orthodox movements (Reform and Conservative, and to a lesser extent the small Reconstructionist Movement) claim the largest number of affiliations of American Jews, then members of our rabbinates should be willing to step up and serve with the troops in uniform wherever the go. To explain why there is a dearth of non-Orthodox rabbis in the chaplaincy is complex and beyond the scope of this post. But over the years one attitude I encountered over and over among my civilian colleagues, cited as a reason to not even consider the military chaplaincy, was the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ (henceforth DADT) law that prohibits gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Since the military ‘discriminates’ against GLBT people, the reasoning goes, one who upholds civil rights for all Americans should not even consider serving in the military. And I know that this attitude is not limited to the Reform rabbinate; I know that there are periodic protests against military presence on college campuses over the issue.

With a new, liberal administration in Washington, there is a new call brewing to repeal DADT.

I want to go on record by saying that I oppose DADT and think it should be repealed on both an ideological and practical basis.

Ideologically, I don’t think it is right to eliminate from the opportunity to serve their country, any group without a compelling benefit to the military from their exclusion. Although where gays and lesbians are concerned, we’re still waiting for scientific proof that sexual orientation as something that’s organic to the individual, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of homosexuality as being more than a behavior ‘disorder’ to give gays and lesbians the benefit of the doubt that most of them arrived at their sexual orientation by a number of factors beyond their control. Because of this widespread and generally-accepted principle, gays and lesbians today find few barriers – to employment, education, housing, etc – based on their known sexual orientation. If it could be proven that excluding them from the military service provided some benefit adding to the fighting readiness of the armed forces, then perhaps there would be grounds to exclude them in the way that those with criminal records and without high school diplomas are (at least, partly) excluded. But I believe that case has not been made.

The pragmatic case for repealing DADT is primarily that, in an era of shrinking manpower pools, it would make available talented individuals of homosexual orientation who desire to serve. For example, the well-known case of LT Dan Choi, a graduate of West Point who is a fluent Arabic speaker and served with distinction as a commander in Iraq, who was recently mustered out of the National Guard after he ‘came out.’ As observers like to point out, other countries allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in their military services with no loss of fighting effectiveness; the usual examples given are the UK, Australia, and Israel.

But let’s back up and ask ourselves: what exactly is the origin of DADT? How was it enacted in the first place?

In 1981, the Department of Defense enacted a policy declaring homosexuality to be incompatible with military service. Although there were various challenges to this policy over the years, it stood until 1993 when newly-elected President Bill Clinton issued an executive order repealing it. Under the order, gays and lesbians were to be allowed forthwith to serve openly, period. In issuing it, Clinton was making good on a campaign promise to the gay community.

But the Clinton order raised a firestorm of outrage, not only in the military itself but among groups of parents of young adults in the military service, for example. In reality, what killed the new policy was opposition to it by another constituency that Clinton owed for his election: African-Americans.

In advocating for the new policy, many gays and their supporters drew parallels to President Truman signing an executive order dropping all discrimination in the military against Blacks, integrating the military completely. Black Americans largely objected to the comparison; most Blacks have conservative Christian social values, and the idea that homosexuality is a characteristic that is organic to a person’s makeup is anathema to them.

Clinton backpedaled on the executive order and asked congress to sit down with military leaders to produce a compromise that he could sign into law. The result was the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Law – not Policy! – part of the fiscal year 1994 Defense Appropriations Bill that Clinton signed into law.

DADT is, therefore, beyond the power of any military leadership or even president to repeal, unless the US Supreme Court were to strike it down as unconstitutional – and the Supreme Court has never even considered hearing such a case. The solution, then would be for congress to enact legislation to repeal it, or attach such language to the current defense appropriations bill, and that is not something that is under serious consideration. Why not? Because President Obama has not advocated such action.

DADT can be repealed, at least during the session of the 111th US Congress, if the President will publicly ask congress to do so, saying unambiguously that he will sign such legislation into law should it reach his desk. But Obama is yet to make such an unambiguous declaration. Perhaps he does not personally favor repealing it – after all, he is known to hold socially conservative views with regard to, for example, gay marriage. Perhaps, alternatively, he realizes it will cause an intense fight over what he considers a not-very-important issue, a ‘tempest in a teapot,’ potentially getting in the way of other elements of his legislative agenda. The latter is what I suspect; although the Administration has a great amount of influence in both houses of congress due to Democratic majorities and the widely-held belief that many Democratic members rode into office on Obama’s coattails, there is increasing breaking of ranks by Democratic representatives over various legislative priorities and perhaps Obama doesn’t want DADT to further spoil his chances of, for example, Health Care Reform. But regardless of whatever his reason might be, Obama’s not publicly advocating for the repeal of DADT is the main obstacle keeping the unpopular law in place.