A federal appeals court ordered the U.S. government on Wednesday to immediately cease enforcing the longstanding ban on openly gay members of the military.
In a brief two-page order, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the "don't ask, don't tell" policy must be lifted now that the Obama administration has concluded it's unconstitutional to treat gay Americans differently under the law.
The ruling was the latest legal development in the effort by gay rights supporters to end the policy. It came in response to a motion brought by Log Cabin Republicans, a group for gay Republican Party members, which last year persuaded a lower court judge to declare the ban unconstitutional.
After the government appealed U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips' decision, the 9th Circuit agreed to keep the policy in place until it could consider the matter. The appeals court reversed itself with Wednesday's order by lifting its hold on Phillips' decision.
"The circumstances and balance of hardships have changed, and [the government] can no longer satisfy the demanding standard for issuance of a stay," the panel said.
The appeals court noted that Congress repealed the policy in December and that the Pentagon is preparing to certify that it is ready to welcome gay military personnel. It was not immediately clear what effect the court's ruling would have on the timeline for eliminating the ban.
Dan Woods, the lawyer representing Log Cabin Republicans, said that unless the administration appeals the order to the U.S. Supreme Court, "don't ask, don't tell is over."
He cautioned gay servicemembers against rushing to declare their sexual orientations until the government declares that it intends to abide by the ruling.
The Pentagon has been moving carefully to implement the repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. Under the law passed and signed by the president in December, final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defence advisers certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight.