WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama hailed the end of the policy banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military, saying its official demise on Tuesday marked a key step toward fulfilling America's founding ideals.
"Today, the discriminatory law known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is finally and formally repealed," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "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."
The repeal went into effect on Tuesday, ushering in a new era in the U.S. armed forces. The law had allowed gay men and women to serve in the military only if they kept their sexual orientation a secret. They faced the threat of being kicked out of the military under the law if they were open about their homosexuality.
Obama last December signed legislation to repeal the policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which had been passed by Congress and signed into law in 1993 under then-President Bill Clinton.
"Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans," Obama said.
"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," the president added.
Under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, more than 14,500 U.S. service members were thrown out of the military since it went into effect in 1993, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Gays rights groups for years denounced the law and called its end a important milestone in the fight against anti-homosexual discrimination. Some have compared its demise to the integration of the U.S. armed forces.
'DIGNITY AND RESPECT'
The Pentagon sent out a memo noting that the Defense Department already has certified that ending the policy would not harm military readiness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention of service members.
"Effective today, statements about sexual orientation or lawful acts of homosexual conduct will not be considered as a bar to military service," or admission to the military academies and other programs, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley wrote in the memo.
"All Service members are to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation," Stanley wrote, warning that "harassment or abuse based on sexual orientation" would not be tolerated in the military.
The Pentagon said military recruiters are now accepting enlistment applications from openly gay people.
Opponents of lifting the ban had argued that allowing openly gay people to serve in the military could harm U.S. troops' combat effectiveness. Marine Corps Commandant James Amos had said that implementing the change could cost lives because of the impact on discipline and unit cohesiveness.
Three months before Congress passed the repeal last year, a gay rights group, the Log Cabin Republicans, had won a court ruling striking down the policy.
Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an important development in the gay rights movement in the United States, which has seen progress in its goal of legalizing same-sex marriage. Six U.S. states -- New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont as well as Washington, D.C., already allow same-sex marriage.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by Anthony Boadle)