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General's comments boost debate on gays in military

Reaction strong as Congress set to reexamine rule

(REUTERS)

WASHINGTON -- The nation's top military officer has rekindled debate over gays in the military by calling homosexual acts "immoral," setting off a political firestorm as Congress prepares to reexamine the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The comments Monday by Marine General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prompted former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, Republican of Virginia, to "strongly disagree" yesterday and signal that he might consider allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces. Warner, who remains the ranking GOP member on the committee, is one of the Senate's most influential voices on military affairs.

Pace declined to apologize for the comments he made to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, opting instead to clarify his comments by saying, "I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views."

But opponents of the policy seized on the fracas to push for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law, which some said provides cover for anti gay attitudes.

"I think his comments are inflammatory enough that they will provide a start to the debate," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Service Members' Legal Defense Fund, which supports legislation sponsored by Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, to overturn the law.

Pace said in the Tribune interview that he opposes such efforts as Meehan's because "I believe that homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way."

The 1993 law was a compromise between the Pentagon and Bill Clinton, who in his campaign for the presidency vowed to permit gays to serve openly in the military. The compromise allowed gays to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation secret.

Since then, more than 11,000 service members have been discharged under the policy, including hundreds of linguists and other specialists deemed critical to the war on terrorism. Last week a federal appeals court in Boston heard opening arguments in Cook v. Gates, the most recent attempt by gay veterans to be reinstated.

Many previous supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" have reversed their position, including General John Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the policy was adopted. He said the policy is driving out good soldiers.

Yesterday, members of both parties were quick to criticize Pace, including long time military hawk Warner. "I respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the chairman's view that homosexuality is immoral," Warner said in a statement. Warner, a former Navy secretary, added that he is awaiting the outcome of planned hearings on the issue before deciding whether to support efforts to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

"I am deferring comment on the current policy until after such hearings are held on the subject," Warner said.

Meehan's office said hearings are planned for as early as May before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which he chairs. Meehan, who is planning to leave his seat in July, is hoping to make the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" part of his legacy in Congress, staff members said.

Pace's comments also became fodder for the 2008 presidential campaign.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said outside a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills, Calif., that Pace "should be given a chance to explain himself" and that "don't ask, don't tell" has been "successful and should be maintained."

Several Democratic candidates, including former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, assailed the comments and called for a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

"I find it outrageous that at a time when we need as many good people serving in the military as possible, we are still talking about excluding people based on their sexual orientation," another contender, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, said in a statement.

Others who oppose the current policy welcomed the debate sparked by Pace.

"I thought the initial statement was fabulous," said Aaron Belkin, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a widely noted expert on the issue of gays in the military. "I may have been the only gay man in the country with that reaction. But he was being honest. This debate has proceeded with a great deal of dishonesty. Defenders have always said this is about military effectiveness. Their problem with gay people is . . . bigotry."

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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