WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon on Thursday halted enforcement of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy pending an appeal of a federal court order prohibiting the government from expelling gays and lesbian soldiers who disclose their sexual orientation.
The Obama administration also on Thursday asked U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips to stay the order she issued Tuesday, but it was unclear whether she would do so.
The government last month asked her not to issue an injunction against "don't ask, don't tell" after she found that the 17-year-old policy, which bars gays and lesbians from disclosing their sexual orientation, violated service members' First Amendment rights. But Judge Phillips did issue the injunction Tuesday anyway.
The government asked Judge Phillips to rule on the stay by 3 p.m. Monday. If the judge rejects the stay request, the government still could appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, but there is no certainty on how either court would rule.
Thursday's government action raised the stakes in the "don't ask, don't tell" debate, which has languished since President Barack Obama called last year for Congress to repeal the 1993 law that codified the policy and has become a thorny political issue just days before the November elections.
While the House has passed repeal legislation, the Senate refused in September to consider a defense budget bill that included the repeal.
In seeking the stay, the Obama administration said a precipitous change in the government's longtime ban on gays in the military could disrupt combat operations and endanger gays and lesbians whose sexual orientation becomes known. It said the Pentagon was studying effects of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, and Congress was considering repealing the law that initiated "don't ask, don't tell."
"A court-ordered injunction, operating precipitously and directly on all military and civilian Defense Department personnel throughout the world, would undermine the credibility and validity of the entire process that the political branches have undertaken for an orderly repeal of DADT, and may make the transition to repeal not only far more difficult, but also potentially disruptive to military readiness," the Justice Department wrote.
Mr. Obama on Thursday repeated his call for Congress to repeal the law, but defended his administration's decision to appeal the judge's ruling.
"Congress explicitly passed a law that took away the power of the executive branch to end this policy unilaterally, so this is not a situation in which, with a stroke of a pen, I can simply end the policy," Mr. Obama said at a question-and-answer session with young people on MTV. "It has to be done in a way that is orderly, because we are involved in a war right now.
"This policy will end, and it will end on my watch," he said. "But I do have an obligation to make sure that I'm following some of the rules. I can't simply ignore laws that are out there."
But Dan Woods, the lawyer who brought the lawsuit that led to Judge Phillips' injunction, said gays and lesbians had waited long enough for the political branches of government to act.
The Pentagon appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the judge's injunction, even though she had pledged a month ago that she would issue it.