WASHINGTON -- The military's ban on open homosexuality officially came to an end Sept. 20, resulting in celebration among gay and lesbian groups but concern elsewhere that the new policy would restrict religious freedoms and infringe on privacy.
The old policy -- dubbed Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) -- was implemented in 1993 as a compromise between those who wanted to allow open service by homosexuals and those opposed to it. Under DADT, military commanders could not ask service members about their sexuality, although they could conduct an investigation if they learned about a member's homosexuality.
The policy's reversal is one of the biggest accomplishments for President Obama and his liberal base after he pledged during the 2008 campaign to work to reverse the law. A bill repealing it passed the House in December, 250-175, and then the Senate, 65-31, in the final days of the last Congress when Democrats still controlled both chambers. Obama signed it just before Christmas, and Republicans took control of the House in January.
The policy officially took effect after Obama, the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff chairman certified that reversing the policy would not harm the military, and after a 60-day review period by Congress had passed. That review period ended Sept. 19.
"It's a sad day for our men and women in the armed services and for the country," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press. "This policy, unless it is reversed, will cause significant numbers of our dedicated men and women to leave the service, particularly at the critically important non-commissioned officer level. This action will seriously degrade unit morale and will lead to a myriad of problems. Our armed forces are not the place for social experimentation. They exist to fight and win wars and defend our freedom. Their ability to perform those functions will be lessened by this policy."
The policy, Land said, will "destroy unit cohesion."
"It needs to be rescinded, and it needs to be rescinded in the very near future. And that can happen. Elections do have consequences," Land said.
In fact, the new policy had an impact just after midnight in Vermont, where Navy Lt. Gary Ross "married" his partner in a ceremony that drew nationwide media coverage.
In a statement, President Obama applauded repeal of what he called a "discriminatory" law.
"As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," Obama said. "As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members.... Today, every American can be proud that we have taken another great step toward keeping our military the finest in the world and toward fulfilling our nation's founding ideals."
But repeal brings a host of problems, critics say.
One question concerns whether military bases located in states where same-sex "marriage" or civil unions are legal can host such ceremonies in chapels, and also whether military chaplains can perform the ceremonies. Conservatives say the Defense of Marriage Act -- a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman -- prevents the military from recognizing gay relationships, and thus prohibits participation in such ceremonies. In May, the U.S. Navy at first said such ceremonies could be performed on bases in states where they are legal, but it reversed course under pressure from some in Congress.
Another concern, critics say, involves freedom of religion for chaplains and military personnel. Will Christians in the military, those critics ask, still be able to call homosexuality a sin without fear of recourse? In May, 21 denominational chaplain-endorsing officials sent a letter to the Army, Navy and Air Force chiefs of chaplains, saying they have concern that overturning the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy would "create an environment that is increasingly hostile to the many chaplains -- and the service members they serve -- whose faith groups and personal consciences recognize homosexual behavior as immoral and unsafe, and do not permit same-sex unions.
"No American, especially those serving in the armed forces, should be forced to abandon their religious beliefs or be marginalized for holding to those beliefs," the chaplains' letter said.
The letter asked the chiefs of chaplains to urge the Department of Defense and Congress to adopt conscience protections for those opposed to homosexuality.
Several months before that letter was sent, more than 60 retired chaplains had signed a letter to Obama and the secretary of defense warning that a repeal would marginalize "deeply held" religious beliefs of military personnel and would present a conflict when some chaplains, while preaching, "present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral." They warned that changing the policy could influence chaplains not only in what they could preach but in what they could say in a counseling session. A repeal, the letter further said, would harm morale because it would be casting "the sincerely held religious beliefs of many chaplains and Service members as rank bigotry comparable to racism."
The Department of Defense has said it will have a "zero tolerance policy" for anti-gay behavior, The Washington Post reported. That led Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council to comment on Twitter: "The critical question: what constitutes 'anti-gay behavior'? Is holding/voicing disapproval of homosexual behavior anti-gay?"
Privacy also is a concern, particularly in military locations where there is little privacy. A Pentagon survey of personnel found that only 29 percent of personnel said they would "take no action" if they were assigned to share, with a gay person, bathroom facilities that had an open bay shower. Twenty-six percent said they'd use it at a different time than the other person, 18 percent said they'd discuss the situation with a leader to see if there were other options, and 11 percent said they'd discuss the situation with the person they believed was homosexual.
That same survey found that 59 percent of Marines who have been in combat and 44 percent of all personnel who have been in combat said having openly homosexual persons in a field environment or at sea would have a negative effect on their unit's "effectiveness at completing its mission." Among those in the Marine combat arms and Army combat arms, 57 percent and 47 percent, respectively, said having an openly gay person would negatively impact "how service members in your immediate unit work together to get the job done."
Additionally, more than a third of Marines (38.1 percent) and nearly a fourth of all personnel (23.7) said they would either leave the military or think about doing so earlier than planned if the policy is reversed, and 40 percent of Marines and 27 percent of all the military said they would be less likely to recommend to a friend or family member that he or she join the military.