SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court advanced the cause of gays and lesbians in the military on Wednesday by ordering the immediate end of a policy that prevented them from serving openly.
President Barack Obama last year signed a landmark law repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that forced gays to keep their sexual orientation secret if they want to be in the military. The issue of military service has long been a key issue for the gay community, along with same-sex marriage.
The Pentagon has been in the process of writing rules for the new policy. However, the appeals court's ruling on Wednesday could speed up that process.
"At this very moment someone could go into a recruiting office and say they were an openly gay or lesbian individual, and hypothetically that recruiting office should enlist that individual," said David Cruz, a professor at University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
Last year, a California district court judge found that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy violated the U.S. Constitution, and issued an injunction. But the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals put that injunction on hold as the Department of Justice appealed the ruling.
Even with his support for ending the 18-year-old policy, Obama's Justice Department asked the appeals court to keep the injunction in place to give the military more time to prepare for admitting gay soldiers.
In an order on Wednesday, a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit noted that the process of repealing DADT is now "well underway."
The government "can no longer satisfy the demanding standard" to keep the injunction on hold, the court ruled.
The Pentagon said it was still studying the ruling, but added it would comply with the court order. A spokesman, Colonel Dave Lapan, said the U.S. military was immediately taking "steps to inform the field of this order."
The Justice Department is also reviewing the decision, said agency spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
Still, the court order came just weeks before the U.S. military was expected to certify that troops were ready for the repeal, the final bureaucratic hurdle before the policy was abolished.
Lapan said that, despite the court order, that process was underway, proceeding smoothly and that "certification is just weeks away."
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans which filed the suit said the ruling "removes all uncertainty - American service members are no longer under threat of discharge as the repeal implementation process goes forward."
Since the ban became a formal policy in 1993, an estimated 13,000 people have been expelled from the armed forces for violating the rules.
Reporting by Dan Levine, Jeremy Pelofsky and Phil Stewart in Washington and Mary Slosson in Los Angeles; Editing by Jackie Frank