Pentagon (Photo by Newscom)

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promised last February, the Pentagon’s working group on Congress’s military eligibility law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” has issued a report advocating for and detailing implementation steps of the law’s repeal. After several weeks of media spin occasioned by a WikiLeaks-style drip of select findings from the report, and within minutes of the Pentagon’s release, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) re-embraced his position favoring repeal and pushed for rapid action in the lame duck session now underway.

The armed forces deserve more than a Harry Reid rush to judgment. The report itself is nearly 300 pages in length, and the Pentagon’s implementation plan is an additional 95 pages. That alone underscores the need for cautious judgment at a measured pace.

First, consider the media leaks, almost universally reported, that 70 percent of U.S. military personnel believe there will be positive, neutral, or “mixed” effects from repealing the current law on military service by homosexual persons. The 70 percent number is achieved by including within it a sizable bloc—nearly half of that 70 percent—who said that repealing the law would affect them “equally positively and negatively.” The percentage who said repeal would be purely negative outpolled those who said it would be purely positive by a margin of 30 to 18 percent. It would have been equally valid on the basis of this data to leak the following: 62 percent of responding personnel thought that it would have some negative effects or completely negative effects.

In fact, focusing only on those service personnel who did not view repeal as neutral or mixed, the proportion raising serious questions about issues of morale, recruitment, and retention was significantly higher than the proportion discounting such concerns. For example, on the question of whether a service member would recommend to a family member or friend that he or she join the military, answers in the negative (27.3 percent) were more than four times higher than in the positive (6.3 percent).

Moreover, members were more than six times as likely to say that repeal would have a negative impact (23.7 percent) on their military career plans as to say it would be positive (3.5 percent). Similar ratios prevailed in the question about the impact on morale (27.9 percent negative versus 4.8 percent positive).

As the media have now reported, the ratio of negative to positive reaction to repeal is highest among combat units, particularly the U.S. Army infantry and the Marine Corps. Negative views of repeal in these subsets range as high as 60 percent. And this is the result under circumstances where the Pentagon’s ultimate recommendation in favor of repeal was known in advance, if not preordained. If that circumstance had any influence at all, it would lie in the direction of chilling expression of opposition to repeal. When a quarter of the service openly acknowledges the belief that there will be a negative impact on their military career plans, that is therefore likely to be a threshold number.

Moreover, as the Pentagon’s implementation proposal makes clear, much more than the matter of open service by homosexual persons is at stake in the debate. Topics up for consideration include the military’s definitions of marriage and family—which the Pentagon’s recommendations would clearly undermine—and the religious liberty of military chaplains and individual service members, who face the possibility of limited or no advancement if they decline to treat issues of sexual conduct in the same neutral manner the armed forces apply to non-behavioral characteristics like race.

In addition, the Pentagon implementation report is perplexing when it states that “for the time being,” it recommends treating homosexual service members as “single” for purposes of military benefits like family housing and health care. The wisdom of placing the U.S. military in the vanguard of the debate over the definition of marriage and the nature of the family is highly questionable.

Current law is clear: Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, marriage is solely the union of a man and a woman, and that applies fully to the armed forces. Certainly, the Obama Administration’s increasingly shameless attempts in federal court to undermine the Defense of Marriage Act and the current law on open service by homosexual persons inspires no confidence in the intentions of this report’s framers.

Understanding the implications of a straightforward repeal, as the 2011 defense reauthorization bill contemplates, is a congressional responsibility that should not be delegated to an executive branch that seems predisposed to dismiss such concerns. Far wiser would be the permission of a decent interval, beginning with hearing the candid views of the service branch chiefs who are set to testify at the end of this week, for full assessment and criticism of the Pentagon report and further congressional hearings as needed.

This would appear particularly appropriate given two facts: First, the military is already operating under an amended policy less than a year old that has resulted in relatively few dismissals for homosexual conduct. Second, we are a nation involved in two foreign engagements, with further instability on other fronts.

The willingness of our service men and women to give their lives for the nation carries with it the corollary that Congress should be willing to give special weight to their voices on issues of military service. That merits more than one week of consideration in a lame duck session with an expansive agenda of overdue legislative priorities. Preserving religious liberty and the institution of marriage, in fact, are timeless priorities that no session of Congress, lame duck or otherwise, should ever give such short shrift.