WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. John McCain made some of his strongest remarks yet in defense of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy that prohibits open homosexual service, suggesting Sunday that an imminent Pentagon study on the issue is biased and arguing that a bill that would overturn it should not pass during the lame-duck session of Congress that began Monday.
Opponents of the policy are frantically working to get the Senate to take up the issue during the coming days and before the new Congress is sworn in during January, when Republicans will take control of the House. Once the GOP takes charge, a repeal of the policy will be all but dead.
If the Senate fails to act during the lame duck session, the policy could be in place for years, unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns it. The Supreme Court refused to get involved Nov. 12, letting stand a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that keeps the policy in place, at least for a while. That same appeals court eventually will consider the merits of a lawsuit against the policy. A lower court in the Ninth Circuit had overturned it -- a ruling that was appealed.
The Democratic-controlled House passed an amendment to the defense authorization bill in May that would overturn the policy, but the Senate has yet to take up the bill because Republicans have successfully blocked it. McCain has led the charge to prevent the Senate from voting on the bill as long as the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal provision is included. McCain also opposes a portion of the bill that would eliminate a restriction on elective, privately funded abortions in military health care facilities.
The Pentagon study on Don't Ask, Don't Tell is due Dec. 1.
"This study was directed at how to implement the repeal, not whether the repeal should take place or not," McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Nov. 14. "But, very importantly, we have people like the commandant of the Marine Corps [and] the three other ... service chiefs ... saying we need a thorough and complete study of the effects -- not how to implement a repeal, but the effects on morale and battle effectiveness. That's what I want."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who favors repealing the policy, said during a February congressional hearing that the Pentagon study would not look at whether the policy should be repealed but instead examine the "issues associated with properly implementing a repeal."
Said McCain, "Once we get this study, we need to have hearings, and we need to examine it, and we need to look at whether it's the kind of study that we wanted. It isn't [the kind of study we wanted], in my view, because I wanted a study to determine the effects of the repeal on battle effectiveness and morale. What this study is designed to do is, is to find out how the repeal could be implemented. Those are two very different aspects of this issue."
Although President Obama, Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen all want to see the policy on open homosexual service repealed, the chiefs of the four military branches -- all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- apparently are in opposition.
James Amos, the new commandant of the Marines, told reporters in November he favors the current policy because overturning it would harm "combat effectiveness" and raise privacy concerns.
"There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women -- and when you talk of infantry, we're talking about our young men -- laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers," Amos said, according to the Associated Press. "I don't know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion, it's combat effectiveness."
McCain, too, raised privacy concerns.
"I was in an outpost near Kandahar [and an] Army master sergeant, 19 years in, fifth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, says to me, 'Sen. McCain, we live, eat, sleep and fight together in close proximity. I'm concerned about the repeal. I'd like to know more about it.' That's ... the view that I got from chief petty officers and sergeants all over Afghanistan," McCain said.
Religious freedoms, too, could be impacted if Don't Ask, Don't Tell is reversed. More than 60 chaplains signed a letter to Obama and Gates, urging them not to overturn the policy. The letter warned that reversing it not only will affect religious liberty but could even impact military readiness and troop levels because the military would be marginalizing "deeply held" religious beliefs. Chaplain (Col.) Keith Travis, chaplain team leader for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, was one of the chaplains who signed it.
"Marginalizing a large group of chaplains ... will unavoidably harm readiness by diminishing morale," the chaplains' letter states. "Similarly, making orthodox Christians -- both chaplains and servicemen -- into second-class Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines whose sincerely held religious beliefs are comparable to racism cannot help recruitment or retention."
Travis told Baptist Press that "there's a question as to whether our chaplains would be able to offer the full counsel of Scripture to soldiers who seek their guidance" if the policy is reversed.