Colleges back military gays' fight for rights

March 27, 1998

Eleven United States higher education organisations have thrown their weight behind a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the military's policy of banning openly gay servicemen and women.

The 4,380 colleges and universities represented by the national groups contend that the ban contradicts anti-discrimination policy because it also applies to military officer training on their campuses.

"For decades, (US colleges and universities) have been working to achieve and foster respect for diversity in American higher education," the schools wrote in support of a lawsuit brought by six lesbian and gay members of the armed forces and the US Coast Guard.

"They have done this for two reasons," the legal motion says: "They know from deep experience that with greater diversity comes better education; and they also know that diversity advances knowledge and develops leadership in ways that break down stereotyped preconceptions."

The military's so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which was instituted amid great controversy in 1993, states that members of and applicants for the military will not be asked or required to reveal their sexual orientation. But they can and will be discharged for homosexual conduct.

To avoid being discharged, an acknowledged homosexual must prove that he or she is not engaging in, and does not intend to engage in, any homosexual act.

Nearly 140 universities and colleges initially barred military recruiters from their campuses in protest, but most reversed the policy when they were threatened with the loss of federal student aid. They have since been waiting for a way to repudiate the rule in court.

Sheldon Steinbach, vice-president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, one of the 11 higher education groups involved, said: "We were looking for years for an appropriate vehicle to challenge this.

"Efforts at trying to find a legislative solution came up totally empty and intensive efforts with the Pentagon received a reasonable response, but no action. So we felt that the only avenue left, since we weren't going to file suit ourselves, was to file a friend-of-the-court brief in an appropriate case."

The Supreme Court has so far declined to consider any of the many legal challenges, thereby effectively allowing the rule to stand. But a lower court judge has ruled the measure violates the rights to free speech and equal protection under the constitution.

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