The new law's critics have warned it will result in infringements on religious liberty, as well as harm the readiness, privacy and retention of service members.
The president's signing of the legislation did not officially repeal the previous policy, however. Final repeal will require certification by Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen that it will not harm the military. That final step seems a foregone conclusion, since all three supported the bill.
By enacting the reversal of a 17-year-old law known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the president kept a promise he had made and accomplished a goal President Clinton failed to achieve in his first year in office. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was approved in 1993 as a compromise between conservatives and Clinton, whose effort to lift the longtime military ban was resisted by Congress and the Pentagon. Don't Ask, Don't Tell barred homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibited military commanders from asking service members if they are homosexual or about their "sexual orientation."
The signing ceremony came only days after both houses of Congress approved the repeal during the lame duck session. The Senate's 65-31 vote occurred Dec. 18, three days after the House of Representatives approved the measure in a 250-175 roll call.
Obama signed the legislation into law in an auditorium at the Department of the Interior large enough to seat a cheering crowd of about 500 people.
Calling it "a very good day," the president said before signing the bill he is "certain that we can effect this transition in a way that only strengthens our military readiness; that people will look back on this moment and wonder why it was ever a source of controversy in the first place."
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land, who supported maintaining Don't Ask, Don't Tell, warned about the repercussions of its repeal.
"I am extremely concerned this is going to significantly degrade the effectiveness of our military," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, after the signing ceremony. "I know already of two young men who are the finest that this nation has to offer who have informed me that based upon this decision they are not going to officer candidates school to be Marines. That is the nation's great loss. I fear that scenario will be repeated over and over again across red-state America."
On the day before the Senate vote, Land appealed to Obama not to sign the repeal into law. After the Senate's passage, Land called it a "very, very sad day for America."
Supporters of Don't Ask, Don't Tell especially expressed concern about religious liberty protections. More than 60 retired chaplains had signed a letter to Obama and Gates warning that a repeal would marginalize "deeply held" religious beliefs of military personnel and 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."
Chaplain (Col.) Keith Travis, chaplain team leader for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, said after the Senate vote, "Our primary concern is that our chaplains be allowed to counsel and teach using Scripture in its entirety. It will be interesting to see how the military will balance this new policy with religious freedom."
Christian legal organizations already have promised to defend any chaplains who encounter problems.
Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council (FRC), said Dec. 21 he already has spoken with congressional leaders about implementing oversight procedures to minimize the effects of the repeal.
"We want to ensure that the Pentagon is monitoring the effect of this radical change on the men and women in harm's way," Perkins said in a written statement. "One way to do that is demanding specific measurables -- like tracking the sexual assaults, dips in recruitment and retention, combat distractions, and more."
Advocates for homosexual rights applauded the bill's signing.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called it "a tremendous victory."
"This cannot happen fast enough," Carey said in a written statement. "We thank President Obama for signing this critical legislation and now call upon him as commander in chief, and his top military leaders, to swiftly lead us through to full implementation."
For Carey and her allies, their hope is that repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is another step toward the gaining of rights in other areas -- including marriage.
"If you can fight and die for your country, there's absolutely no reason why you can't be granted the full set of rights" others hold, including the opportunity to marry a homosexual partner, said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), according to The Washington Post. "Americans will deduce that on their own. We won't have to say a thing."
HRC is the country's largest political organization working for rights for homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people.
Obama, who pledged during the 2008 election campaign to rescind the ban, called on Congress during his January State of the Union speech to reverse the policy, and the Pentagon studied the issue for 10 months before releasing a much-debated survey Nov. 30. Foes of Don't Ask, Don't Tell rushed to pass the bill during the lame duck session after Republicans -- most of whom supported the 1993 law -- made significant gains in the November elections. New legislators will be sworn in Jan. 5.
The Pentagon's survey of military personnel found significant resistance to a repeal from those serving on the front lines. For example, among those in the Marine combat arms and Army combat arms, 57 percent and 47 percent, respectively, said having an openly homosexual person would negatively impact "how service members in your immediate unit work together to get the job done."
More than a third of Marines (38.1 percent) and nearly a fourth of all personnel (23.7 percent) said they would either leave the military or think about doing so earlier than planned if the policy is reversed. That number jumped to 48 percent for Marines on the front lines.
In his Dec. 17 letter to Obama, Land urged the president to be guided by his Christian faith on the issue.
"We believe it to be contrary to Scripture to commend open homosexual relationships in general, including within the military ranks," Land told the president. "Our nation has moved from God in so many ways and we are deeply concerned that an increasingly affirming policy toward homosexual behavior will provide further impetus for God's judgment on our nation."
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode, with reporting by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.
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