TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A former U.S. Air Force flight nurse expelled from the military after revealing she is a lesbian was ordered reinstated by a federal judge on Friday in a closely watched court challenge to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Major Margaret Witt in contesting her dismissal, has said that if returned to the service, she would be the first person to lawfully serve openly in the U.S. military as a homosexual.
"She should be reinstated at the earliest possible moment," U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton said as he spoke from the bench of his packed courtroom in Tacoma, Washington.
Witt's supporters erupted in applause, and some wiped tears of joy from their eyes.
Witt, 46, reacted to the news almost stoically at first, then broke into a wide smile.
The verdict capped a two-week nonjury "bench" trial in which ACLU lawyers presented a string of witnesses who worked with Witt attesting to her outstanding performance in the service.
Air Force attorneys countered that military regulations, including the policy requiring gay service members to keep their homosexuality private, must be uniformly obeyed in order to maintain morale and order throughout the armed forces.
Leighton's decision comes weeks after another federal judge in California struck down the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law as an unconstitutional infringement on the free speech and due process rights of gays and lesbians serving in the military.
The Obama administration on Thursday, however, asked that judge to keep the policy mostly intact, rather than issue an injunction against it, while Congress debates the issue.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate blocked legislation that would have repealed the policy, instituted in 1993, which continued the long-time ban on homosexual acts in the military but allowed gays to serve in the armed forces so long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret. Otherwise, they are to be expelled.
The administration's position on a court injunction in the California case drew cries from some in the gay rights community that President Barack Obama was forsaking a campaign promise he made to support repeal of the law.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)