WASHINGTON — A federal court ruled Wednesday the US military had to immediately stop enforcing a ban on gays serving openly in uniform, even though the government is weeks away from scrapping the policy.
The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided the ban, known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," must be lifted without delay, as President Barack Obama's administration has said that discriminating against gays violated the US Constitution.
The court referred to a new law adopted in December, and backed by Obama, that calls for ending the prohibition pending a final review by military leaders and the defense secretary.
Pentagon officials had expected the rule to be formally scrapped by the end of July, and the effect of the court ruling was unclear.
"We are studying the ruling with the Department of Justice," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said in an email.
"We will of course comply with orders of the court, and are taking immediately steps to inform the field of this order."
A federal judge last year had ordered an injunction that barred the Pentagon from enforcing the ban but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had stayed the judge's ruling, giving the Obama administration more time to review the issue.
The court Wednesday reversed its earlier decision, granting a motion to activists to lift the stay.
The "motion to lift this court?s November 1, 2010, order granting a stay of the district court?s judgment pending appeal is granted," the court said.
The three-judge panel said "the process of repealing Section 654 (the ban) is well underway, and the preponderance of the armed forces are expected to have been trained by mid-summer," it said.
"The circumstances and balance of hardships have changed," and the government's argument was no longer persuasive for delaying the repeal of the law, it said.
In cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act, the court also noted that the US government had "recently taken the position that classifications based on sexual orientation should be subjected to heightened scrutiny."
The ruling was a victory for activists who have fought for years against the military ban, which was introduced in 1993 as a compromise after military chiefs rejected a bid by former president Bill Clinton to open the doors to openly gay soldiers.
The decision comes after gay rights groups celebrated New York state's move to allow same-sex marriages.
The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law required gay troops to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or face the threat of expulsion.