Progressive Faith Leaders Rally to Keep Heat on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Judge Virginia Phillips’ September 9 ruling to issue a permanent injunction against discharging US servicemembers based on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy was a call to action for one faith group, and no, I’m not referring to the religious right.

Harry Knox, a member of The President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith program, called Phillips’ ruling “a vindication of the tireless efforts of advocates over the last 17 years.” The ruling was not only a victory for the Log Cabin Republicans, who brought the suit, but for all those who have been working towards repealing DADT. (Full disclosure: Knox is a member of Religion DispatchesAdvisory Council) .

Though working to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may not seem like an obvious progressive religious cause, Knox told RD in an email interview, “[progressive] faith communities care about justice for everyone.” Therefore, “thousands of faith leaders are using social networking, their teaching and preaching opportunities, and their voices as prophetic leaders in the public square to amplify God’s call to remove the barriers to service for lesbian and gay people,” he continued.

Well before the ruling, “faith leaders have been making their own congregants aware of how DADT harms gay and lesbian service members and also harms our country at a time when skilled members of the military are needed more than ever,” Knox said. However, advocacy on behalf of lesbian and gay servicemembers is not limited to the pulpit, he noted, adding that faith leaders: “also have been advocating with members of Congress about the need for repeal through events like the Human Rights Campaign’s Clergy Call lobby event and through clergy sign-on letters and letters to the editor. Retired chaplains have been speaking out to tell the truth about DADT and to tell their own powerful stories of pastoral ministry to lesbian and gay service members who were denied the freedom to serve their country simply because of who they are.”

However, as Knox and the faith leaders working with him are well aware, the fight to repeal DADT is far from over: “while Judge Phillips’ ruling is a hopeful development, we must not think DADT will automatically go away as a result of it,” Knox cautioned. LGBT legal expert Ari Waldman confirmed Knox’s point in his legal analysis of what could happen next after the ruling, writing that Judge Phillips issued a “declaratory judgment” yesterday, but he gave the plaintiffs until September 16 to submit language for a proposed injunction. Defendants then have seven days from submission of the proposed injunction to object.

In other words, since the “defendant” in this case is the federal government, any appeal will be seen as coming from President Obama, who has asked Congress to help him repeal DADT. Thus far, the House has voted to repeal DADT, but the bill languishes in the Senate.

From a political point of view, the way forward for the Obama Administration is politically murky, said New York magazine writer Chris Rovzar in a September 10 analysis. “If the Justice Department simply doesn’t appeal the case after this ruling, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ might just go away. If Obama waits for Congress to address the issue, a Republican-led house might reject an overturn,” wrote Rovzar.

For Knox, the way forward is clear, and the faith communities he represents are fired up and ready to act because the next four weeks are critical to the fate of DADT. He, and the Human Rights Campaign are calling on everyone who wants DADT repealed to contact their US Senators today to urge them to push for repeal before the November election.

As Knox insists, “we must not wait on the courts. The Senate must not pass the buck on justice. The time for repeal is now.”

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Alex McNeill, Religion Dispatches’ LGBT editor, is the first openly queer ministry candidate in a conservative Presbyterian region in North Carolina. With a Master’s of Divinity from Harvard, Alex is Director of Development at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, writing the “Presbyqueerian” blog, an exploration of a contentious ordination process and other musings on sexuality and theology.