Conservative groups have begun to mobilize to stop President Obama plan's to open the military to acknowledged gays, as some prominent right-leaning Washington figures are breaking with the movement and siding with the White House.
The Military Culture Coalition made its debut as an alliance Feb. 18 in a joint Washington news conference to announce a campaign to retain a 1993 law that bans open homosexuals in the ranks based on combat-readiness concerns.
"The 15 findings of fact in the 1993 law, emphasizing morale, unit cohesion and readiness remain valid today," said Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Livonia, Mich.-based Center for Military Readiness. "Repeal and replacement with the proposed 'LGBT Law' for the military, implementing the agenda of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered groups who endorsed President Obama's campaign, would make military life even more difficult and dangerous."
The coalition includes conservative grass-roots organizations, such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Conservative Union and Concerned Women for America.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said these groups have no interest in the military and are involved in this debate merely because they don't like homosexuals.
"I don't think they're really motivated by concern for unit cohesion and military readiness," said Mr. Belkin, whose organization at the University of California at Santa Barbara has conducted studies promoting open gays in the military. "I think they're motivated by moral concerns and a distaste for homosexuality. Most of those groups don't make any bones about that."
He also noted the coalition's press release, saying it put the group at odds with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several of his predecessors who have made statements varyingly critical of the current policy.
"It was a little funny for me to see them put a rainbow-colored question mark over the Pentagon because it's not our side that is questioning Chairman Mullen, Chairman [Colin L.] Powell, Chairman [John] Shalikashvili and Chairman [William] Crowe. So I really don't think it's about military readiness for these groups," he said.
Adm. Mullen, the late Adm. Crowe, and Gen. Shalikashvili have voiced support for overturning the ban, while Gen. Powell has said he wants the law reviewed.
Conservatives have largely been silent on the issue of gays in the military since winning the battle in 1993, when they joined like-minded Democrats and Republicans to block President Clinton's bid to remove outright the services' ban on homosexuality. They took it one step further, writing into law a prohibition that merely had been a regulation; "don't ask, don't tell" was a compromise regulation on how to implement the ban.
This time around, conservatives do not seem as unified or enthused. Groups against the ban, such as the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, have kept a drumbeat of publicity casting the prohibition as unfair discrimination. The mainstream media generally support their goals. And public opinion polls have shown a growing majority supporting gays in the military.
The prospect of major social change for the all-volunteer force has not captured conservative talk radio, which is focused on Mr. Obama's economic and health care agenda.
For example, Bill O'Reilly, host of the Fox News Channel's most-watched prime-time show, said Mr. Obama's call for ending the ban this year is not an issue.
Influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer sided with Mr. Obama on Fox's "Special Report" program in February.
"I think it is a good idea, and I think the administration's approach, which is a gradual approach, is the right one, which is to study how to do it over a year and then to implement it over years," he said. "The mores in the country have changed, certainly in the last 16 years, and certainly among the young. I think it's a form of discrimination that's sort of outlived itself."
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a hero to conservatives for criticizing Mr. Obama's counterterrorism policies, all but endorsed ending the ban on ABC News last month.
"I think society has moved on," said Mr. Cheney, who enforced the ban as President George H.W. Bush's defense secretary. "I think it's partly a generational question. I'm reluctant to second-guess the military in this regard, because they're the ones that got to make the judgment in how these policies affect the military capability of our units."
Mr. Cheney said "that first requirement you have to look at all the time is whether or not they're capable of achieving their mission and does the policy change — i.e., putting gays in the force affect their ability to perform their mission. And when the chiefs come forward and say we can do it, it strikes me that it's time to reconsider the policy, and I think Admiral Mullen said that."
Adm. Mullen told Congress last month that he supports repealing the ban, but the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps withheld support during congressional testimony last week. They said they want to await the results of a study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on how to integrate open gays and its impact on the force. The Marine Corps and Army chief expressed deep reservations about ending the ban.
"I think the current policy works," Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. "My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, to the president, would be to keep the law such as it is."
Said Ms. Donnelly, "The other chiefs are coming forward and are not following the keynote testimony of Adm. Mullen. Our side now is only just starting to get visible. The other side has been out there all along. Now that the hearings are being held, there is a new dynamic."
Some of the issues that social conservatives are raising: Will military chaplains be called on to perform ceremonies that violate their beliefs? Will there be mandatory sensitivity training? What will children be taught about homosexuality in the armed forces schools system?
"If our military is now forced to affirm homosexual behavior, it will for the first time in history espouse a military policy that is completely at odds with the morality expressed by many of its chaplains," the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal rights group, said in a Feb. 18 letter to Mr. Gates.
The coalition is now developing an Internet ad campaign. The Family Research Council has started a petition under the heading "Prevent the Sexualization of our Armed Forces."
"The concerns of our soldiers about a gay military are not based on irrational prejudice, but on legitimate worries about the consequences of increased sexual tension, sexual harassment, and even sexual assault on morale and unit cohesion," the council's president, Tony Perkins, wrote at Human Events. "Such problems in turn would threaten the readiness of the force."