US lawyers fight for gay GI rights

January 29, 1999

American law professors have put their considerable persuasive skills behind an effort to get gays and lesbians an equal place in the nation's armed forces.

More than 180 faculty members from about 100 schools have signed on to work for repeal of a law that took effect in November threatening colleges and universities with the loss of federal funds if they refuse to allow military recruiters to talk to students on their campuses.

About 138 universities and colleges had barred recruiters in protest at the military's policy of excluding openly gay applicants. But when faced with losing the federal aid, which most of them use towards student tuition assistance, all but 18 relented. Of those, 17 are in the state of Connecticut, which has its own law banning discrimination against gays.

The law schools have become a battleground because most have rules of their own against discrimination. Since 1990, the American Association of Law Schools has prohibited its member campuses from dealing with any organisation that discriminates. Members of the Society of American Law Teachers also voted this month to work towards getting the law repealed.

"This law forces law schools to pit students against students," said Margaret Montoya, president-elect of SALT, head of its repeal task force and a professor at the University of New Mexico law school. "It is deplorable that Congress has chosen to use its power of the purse to force law schools to engage in discrimination," she said.

The fight will take place both in the courts and in the Congress. Both efforts face questionable prospects. The Supreme Court has repeatedly refused appeals from discharged gay soldiers and every lower court that has ruled on the policy has upheld it.

Law professors say they will challenge the measure as discriminatory. "If we had a recruiter who said: 'We won't hire anyone who's black,' there's no doubt about us kicking them off campus," said David Chavkin, director and associate professor at American University's Washington College of Law. "The notion that we should treat discrimination against our gay and lesbian and bisexual and trans-gender students as different is an outrage."

Some universities have continued to defy the rule without breaking the law by doing such things as posting notices that the military recruiters' presence does not imply an endorsement.

The University of Miami refuses to keep information about the military in its career-counselling office, banishing it instead to the campus library.

Harvard will not allow its careers office to provide space or assistance to military recruiters, though other individuals or organisations on the campus can act as sponsors.

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