LAST month, a federal judge in California declared the government's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military unconstitutional. This week, the judge ordered the military to stop enforcing the policy. That may not be politically expedient, but it's the right course.
The case was brought six years ago by the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay group that argued the prohibition against serving openly in the military denied gays and lesbians both First Amendment and due process rights. It's a compelling argument.
The Obama Administration is considering whether to appeal the order. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that Congress should decide, not the courts. Suddenly ending the policy, he said, would have "enormous consequences."
The military has had years to prepare. Public sentiment against the policy has grown steadily. Most Americans now oppose "don't ask, don't tell." But politicians refused to change the policy because they feared angering a vocal anti-gay minority. And military brass kept their collective heads in the sand, expecting that equality for gays in the military was always going to be in the future, never in the present.
The administration wants time for the military to get used to and prepare for the changes that are coming. But appealing the decision to get that time would be awkward, because the White House would then be defending a law it opposes and offending a constituency it needs just weeks before midterm elections.
The White House decision should be influenced by its reading of the Constitution, not political considerations. There can be little doubt that "don't ask, don't tell" violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Nor is there a compelling reason to allow that infringement of basic freedom.
Few in the military even try to argue that discriminating against gays is right. Instead, the argument is that treating gays equally would make life more difficult for officers. Discipline would be undermined, they say, and esprit de corps would be damaged.
But many of the problems related to gays and lesbians serving openly in the military will be logistical, having to do with training, revising regulations, and changing benefits. And soldiers who are uncomfortable serving next to gays will have to get over it, as previous generations of soldiers got over their reluctance to serve next to blacks and women.
But just as there continue to be a few racists and misogynists wearing the uniforms of America's Armed Services, there will always be a few homophobic service members as well. That's not a rationale for continuing to punish the victims, as the current policy does. The better policy is for the military to weed out the bigots.
And the better policy for the White House is to do the right thing, to defend constitutional rights, even when it's inconvenient.