In 1993, after many months of study, debate, and political controversy, Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation establishing a revised “[p]olicy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces.” The legislation reflected a compromise regarding the U.S. military’s policy toward members of the Armed Forces who engage in homosexual conduct. This compromise, colloquially referred to as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT),” held that “[t]he presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion which are the essence of military capability.” Service members are not to be asked about, nor allowed to discuss, their sexual orientation.
This compromise notwithstanding, the issue remained both politically and legally contentious, and Congress ultimately passed legislation to repeal DADT. Under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, DADT repeal became effective 60 days after the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified that they considered the recommendations contained in a Department of Defense (DOD) report on the effect of repeal; that DOD prepared the necessary policies and regulations to implement the new law; and that the implementation of such policies and regulations “is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.” This certification occurred on July 22, 2011, and the repeal took effect on September 20, 2011.
In the wake of the 1993 laws and regulations and prior to passage of the 2010 repeal legislation, there were numerous constitutional challenges to DADT. Based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick that there is no fundamental right to engage in consensual homosexual sodomy, the courts had uniformly held that the military may discharge a service member for overt homosexual conduct. However, the legal picture was complicated by the Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which overruled Bowers by declaring unconstitutional a Texas law that prohibited sexual acts between same-sex couples. Subsequently, in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, a federal district court held for the first time that DADT was unconstitutional on its face but later dismissed the case as moot when DADT repeal became effective. Likewise, in Witt v. United States Department of the Air Force, another federal district court held that DADT was unconstitutional as applied to a service member who had been discharged for homosexual conduct and ruled that the service member should be reinstated. More recently, the Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down a federal law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, has made military benefits available to same-sex spouses of service members.
This report provides a legal analysis of the various constitutional challenges that have been brought against DADT. For policy analyses, see CRS Report R42003, The Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Issues for Congress, by David F. Burrelli, and CRS Report R40782, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Military Policy and the Law on Same-Sex Behavior, by David F. Burrelli.
In 1993, after many months of study, debate, and political controversy, Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation establishing a revised "[p]olicy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces." The legislation reflected a compromise regarding the U.S. military's policy toward members of the Armed Forces who engage in homosexual conduct. This compromise, colloquially referred to as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT)," held that "[t]he presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion which are the essence of military capability." Service members are not to be asked about, nor allowed to discuss, their sexual orientation.
This compromise notwithstanding, the issue remained both politically and legally contentious, and Congress ultimately passed legislation to repeal DADT. Under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, DADT repeal became effective 60 days after the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified that they considered the recommendations contained in a Department of Defense (DOD) report on the effect of repeal; that DOD prepared the necessary policies and regulations to implement the new law; and that the implementation of such policies and regulations "is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces." This certification occurred on July 22, 2011, and the repeal took effect on September 20, 2011.
In the wake of the 1993 laws and regulations and prior to passage of the 2010 repeal legislation, there were numerous constitutional challenges to DADT. Based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick that there is no fundamental right to engage in consensual homosexual sodomy, the courts had uniformly held that the military may discharge a service member for overt homosexual conduct. However, the legal picture was complicated by the Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which overruled Bowers by declaring unconstitutional a Texas law that prohibited sexual acts between same-sex couples. Subsequently, in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, a federal district court held for the first time that DADT was unconstitutional on its face but later dismissed the case as moot when DADT repeal became effective. Likewise, in Witt v. United States Department of the Air Force, another federal district court held that DADT was unconstitutional as applied to a service member who had been discharged for homosexual conduct and ruled that the service member should be reinstated. More recently, the Court's decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down a federal law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, has made military benefits available to same-sex spouses of service members.
This report provides a legal analysis of the various constitutional challenges that have been brought against DADT. For policy analyses, see CRS Report R42003, The Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": Issues for Congress, by [author name scrubbed], and CRS Report R40782, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": Military Policy and the Law on Same-Sex Behavior, by [author name scrubbed].
In 1993, after many months of study, debate, and political controversy, Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation establishing a revised "[p]olicy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces."1 The new legislation reflected a compromise regarding the U.S. military's policy toward members of the Armed Forces who engage in homosexual conduct. This compromise, colloquially referred to as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT)," held that "[t]he presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion which are the essence of military capability."2 Service members are not to be asked about, nor allowed to discuss, their sexual orientation. This compromise notwithstanding, the issue has remained both politically and legally contentious, and Congress ultimately passed legislation to repeal DADT.3 As described in greater detail below, this repeal became effective on September 20, 2011. This report provides a legal analysis of the various constitutional challenges that have been brought against DADT. For policy analyses, see CRS Report R42003, The Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": Issues for Congress, by [author name scrubbed], and CRS Report R40782, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": Military Policy and the Law on Same-Sex Behavior, by [author name scrubbed].
Under DADT, which was repealed on September 20, 2011, a member of the Armed Forces could be discharged from the military if (1) the member engaged in, attempted to engage in, or solicited another to engage in a homosexual act or acts; (2) the member stated that he or she was a "homosexual or bisexual"; or (3) the member married or attempted to marry someone of the same sex.4 The statute defined "homosexual" as an individual who "engages in, attempts to engage in, has a propensity to engage in, or intends to engage in homosexual acts," and similarly defined "bisexual" as an individual who "engages in, attempts to engage in, has a propensity to engage in, or intends to engage in homosexual and heterosexual acts."5 The term "homosexual" was also defined to include the terms "gay" and "lesbian."6
It is important to note that DADT did not prohibit the military from questioning new recruits or members about their sexual orientation, although the legislation establishing the policy did contain a statement reflecting the sense of Congress that such questioning should be suspended but could be reinstated if the Secretary of Defense determined such inquiries were necessary to implement the policy. Indicating that such questioning may have been discouraged, the Department of Defense (DOD) Directive implementing the DADT policy stated that sexual orientation is a "personal and private matter and is not a bar to current military service ... unless manifested by homosexual conduct."7 The DADT regulations, therefore, were based on conduct, including verbal or written statements. Since sexual "orientation" is "personal and private," DOD was not to ask and personnel were not to tell. If an individual chose to make his or her homosexual "orientation" public, however, an investigation and discharge were likely to occur.
It is also important to note that the law contained no mention of "sexual orientation," although DOD defined the term as "[a]n abstract sexual preference for persons of a particular sex, as distinct from a propensity or intent to engage in sexual acts."8 Therefore, both the law and the regulations distinguished between sexual orientation and sexual conduct, and both were structured entirely around the concept of homosexual conduct as opposed to orientation, including statements concerning an individual's sexuality. As a result, attempts to implement the statute, or analyze and evaluate it, in terms of sexual orientation, often resulted in confusion and ambiguity.
In recent years, several Members of Congress expressed interest in amending or repealing DADT, as did some military officials. In February 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates established a DOD working group to review issues that could arise if DADT were repealed. Gates simultaneously directed DOD to review regulations regarding DADT and to propose any changes that would allow DOD to "enforce the law in a fairer and more appropriate manner."9 Based on this review, Secretary Gates announced revisions to the DADT regulations in March 2010 that eased certain requirements for discharging service members pursuant to DADT.10
Subsequently, DOD issued the results of its study and concluded that repeal of DADT would pose a low risk to military readiness.11 In a related move, Congress passed legislation to repeal DADT if certain conditions were met. Under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010,12 DADT repeal became effective 60 days after the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified that they considered the recommendations contained in a recent Department of Defense (DOD) report on the effect of repeal; that DOD has prepared the necessary policies and regulations to implement the new law; and that the implementation of such policies and regulations "is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces."13 This certification occurred on July 22, 2011, and the repeal took effect on September 20, 2011.14
In general, DADT repeal appears to have proceeded smoothly. DOD has issued new policy guidance,15 as well as identified benefits that can be extended to the same-sex partners of service members.16 However, the availability of such benefits was originally limited by Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA),17 which, for purposes of federal law, defined marriage as between one man and one woman. On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down this provision as unconstitutional.18 In the wake of this decision, DOD announced that military spouses in same-sex marriages will be eligible to receive military benefits that had previously been available only to opposite-sex spouses.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the debate over repealing DADT, several court cases challenging the constitutionality of DADT continued to unfold. For historical purposes, these lawsuits are described in detail below, although such challenges became moot after repeal took effect.
Constitutional challenges to military policies regarding homosexual conduct began to accelerate following implementation of the DADT compromise in 1993. Similar challenges have also been brought against Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which provides for court-martial and punishment as the court-martial may direct for acts of sodomy committed by military personnel. The Supreme Court never directly considered a challenge to DADT and refused to review the military's policy on several occasions.
Although the Court has never directly addressed the constitutionality of DADT, the Court has considered cases involving allegations of discrimination by the military, as well as cases involving the rights of individuals who engage in homosexual conduct, and these cases are informative. Indeed, most federal courts that have rejected challenges to DADT have relied upon judicial precedents involving "special deference" to the political branches to affirm the "considered professional judgment" of military leaders to discipline or discharge a service member for homosexual conduct or speech. This doctrine of military deference and its application in several Court decisions involving allegations of discrimination by the military are discussed in greater detail below.
Like the doctrine of military deference, Court rulings in two cases involving homosexual conduct—Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas—have also played a prominent role in lower court cases involving constitutional challenges to DADT. In its 1986 ruling in Bowers, the Court held that there was no fundamental right to engage in consensual homosexual sodomy.19 Based on this decision, the courts uniformly ruled that the military could constitutionally discharge a service member for overt homosexual behavior. Complicating the legal picture, however, was the Court's 2003 ruling in Lawrence,20 which expressly overruled Bowers and declared unconstitutional a Texas law that prohibited sexual acts between same-sex couples.
In Lawrence, the Court held that the "liberty" interest in privacy guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects a right for adults to engage in private, consensual homosexual conduct, expressly overruling Bowers's contrary conclusion. In particular, the community's moral disapproval of homosexuality was no "rational" justification for deploying the power of the state to enforce those views. According to the Court:
The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. The right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without the intervention of the government. It is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government cannot enter. The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.21
As noted above, earlier federal appellate courts, relying on Bowers, uniformly ruled that the military ban on homosexual acts intruded upon no constitutionally protected right and was "rationally related" to legitimate military needs for "unit cohesion" and discipline. Moreover, by equating the admission of homosexuality by individual service members—unless demonstrated otherwise—with "propensity" for illegal conduct, the DADT policy successfully avoided equal protection and First Amendment challenge as well. After Lawrence, however, the constitutional bulwark of Bowers began to crumble, arming opponents of Article 125 and DADT with an argument that such military policies abridge the due process right to privacy of service members who are gay. But to prevail in that argument, challengers had to demonstrate that findings by Congress regarding those policies defy minimal rationality, a weighty burden given the deference historically accorded the political branches in the management of military affairs. The precise standard of judicial review, however, has yet to be firmly established.
A tradition of deference by the courts to Congress and the executive in the organization and regulation of the military dates from the earliest days of the republic. Motivating development of this constitutional doctrine was the separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. The Constitution grants exclusive authority to raise and support the Armed Forces to Congress,22 which has "broad and sweeping" power to make all laws necessary for that purpose.23 Similarly, the Constitution grants exclusive command of the Armed Forces to the executive branch, designating the President as "commander-in-chief."24 Nowhere does the Constitution delineate a specific role for the judiciary in military matters. Judicial authority over the Armed Forces arises only indirectly as arbiter of constitutional rights. Thus, the policy of extraordinary deference "to the professional judgment of military authorities" has emerged from case law,25 particularly "when legislative action under the congressional authority to raise and support armies and make rules and regulations for their governance is challenged."26
Originally framed as a doctrine of noninterference, the early Court avoided all substantive review of military disciplinary proceedings, provided only that jurisdictional prerequisites were met. A more skeptical judicial attitude emerged during the Warren Court era, which frequently questioned the scope and operation of military rules, particularly as applied to on-base civilians and non-duty-related conduct of service members. But the pendulum returned to what has been described as the "modern military deference doctrine" with a series of Burger Court decisions in the mid-1970s. Rather than abandoning all substantive review, the current judicial approach is to apply federal constitutional standards in a more lenient fashion which, with rare exception, favors military needs for obedience and discipline over the rights of the individual servicemen. "The fundamental necessity for obedience, and the consequent necessity for imposition of discipline, may render permissible within the military that which would be constitutionally impermissible outside it."27
Among leading contemporary precedents are the Supreme Court rulings in Goldman v. Weinberger and Rostker v. Goldberg.28 Goldman was an Orthodox Jew and rabbi serving as a commissioned officer and psychologist for the Air Force. For five years, he wore a yarmulke while in uniform, without objection from superiors until he testified as a defense witness in a court martial proceeding. The prosecuting attorney at the court martial complained to Goldman's commanding officer that wearing the yarmulke violated Air Force regulations that prohibited wearing of headgear indoors. Goldman was ultimately separated from the service for refusal to remove the yarmulke.
Goldman argued that the Air Force regulation banning headgear "infringed upon his First Amendment freedom to exercise his religious beliefs." A majority of the Court disagreed:
Our review of military regulation challenged on First Amendment grounds is far more deferential than constitutional review of similar laws or regulations designed for civilian society. The military need not encourage debate or tolerate protest to the extent that such tolerance is required of the civilian state by the First Amendment; to accomplish its mission the military must foster instinctive obedience, unity, commitment, and esprit de corps. The essence of military service "is the subordination of the desires and interests of the individual to the needs of the service."29
Because the Air Force argued that standardized uniforms were necessary to "encourage the subordination of personal preferences," the majority deferred to the "professional judgment" of the Air Force. The ramifications of the majority's "subrational-basis standard—absolute, uncritical deference"—drew vigorous objections from the dissenting justices:
The Court rejects Captain Goldman's claim without even the slightest attempt to weigh his asserted right to the free exercise of his religion against the interest of the Air Force in uniformity of dress within the military hospital. No test for free exercise claims in the military context is even articulated, much less applied. It is entirely sufficient for the Court if the military perceives a need for uniformity.30
In Rostker v. Goldberg,31 the Supreme Court dealt specifically with an equal protection challenge to gender-based military classifications—namely, Congress's decision to register men, but not women, for the military draft. In applying the "intermediate scrutiny" test of Craig v. Boren,32 the majority found the draft law did not reflect "unthinking" gender stereotypes, but was the product of extensive congressional deliberations on the role of women in combat and the necessities of military mobilization. The purpose of registration was to create a pool from which combat troops could be drawn as needed. Because women were barred from combat by another law, they were not "similarly situated" to men, and their exemption from registration was "not only sufficiently but closely related to" an "important" governmental purpose. As important to the outcome, however, was the Court's articulation of the "healthy deference" due the political branches in managing military affairs. Thus, according to the majority opinion, "[t]he military constitutes a specialized community governed by a separate discipline from that of the civilian," such that "Congress is permitted to legislate both with greater breadth and with greater flexibility when prescribing the rules by which [military society] shall be governed."33 Constitutional rules apply, and may not be disregarded, but "the different character of the military community and of the military mission requires different application of those principles."34
Equal deference to the military's judgment was apparent in four federal appeals court rulings to uphold the DADT policy before Lawrence. First to rule was the Fourth Circuit in an appeal by Lieutenant Paul G. Thomasson, who had been honorably discharged under the policy after he announced in March 1994 that he was gay. In Thomasson v. Perry,35 the court stressed Congress's "plenary control" of the military and the "deference" owed both the executive and legislative branches in matters of national defense as factors calling for judicial restraint when faced with challenges to military decision making. "What Thomasson challenges," the opinion notes, "is a statute that embodies the exhaustive efforts of the democratically accountable branches of American government and an enactment that reflects month upon month of political negotiation and deliberation."36 Under this standard, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the government articulated a "legitimate purpose" for excluding individuals who commit homosexual acts—that of maintaining unit cohesion and military readiness—and that the law's rebuttable presumption was a "rational means" of preventing individuals who engage in, or have a "propensity" to engage in, homosexual conduct from serving in the military. Similarly, Thomasson's First Amendment claims were rejected for the reason that
[t]he statute does not target speech declaring homosexuality; rather it targets homosexual acts and the propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts and permissibly uses the speech as evidence. The use of speech as evidence in this manner does not raise a constitutional issue—the First Amendment does not prohibit the evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime, or, as is the case here, to prove motive or intent.37
Subsequently, the Fourth Circuit relied on Thomasson to affirm a district court ruling in Thorne v. U.S. Department of Defense.38 After reviewing the record in eight other administrative separation proceedings where the presumption that someone who has declared his homosexuality has a propensity to engage in forbidden conduct was successfully rebutted, the lower court in Thorne held that conduct rather than speech was the target of the DADT policy.
In Richenberg v. Perry,39 the Eighth Circuit upheld the "statement" provision of DADT as applied to the discharge of an Air Force captain who had informed his commanding officer that he was gay. As in Thomasson, the policy was alleged to violate equal protection and free speech rights by targeting declarations of "homosexual orientation or status" unrelated to conduct and for "irrational catering to prejudice against and hatred of homosexuals." Agreeing with the Fourth Circuit, however, the Richenberg court found that the policy ban on homosexual acts was justified by legitimate military needs and rationally served by the rebuttable presumption of a "propensity" to act on the part of someone who has declared his homosexuality. And because the focus of DADT was to "identify and exclude those who are likely to engage in homosexual acts," while prohibiting direct inquiries into an applicant's sexual orientation, there was no basis for a First Amendment challenge, the court concluded.
In appeals from three district court rulings during 1997, the Ninth Circuit approved the discharge of a naval petty officer who admitted to sexual relations with other men and of a California National Guardsman and Navy lieutenant who had submitted written documents to their commanding officers acknowledging that they were gay.40 In the former case, Philips v. Perry, the appeals court ruled that individuals who are gay are not members of a "suspect class" for purposes of federal equal protection analysis, that the military ban on homosexual "acts" was rationally related to legitimate governmental interest in "maintaining effective armed forces," and that evidentiary use of admitted homosexuality did not violate a service member's First Amendment rights. Because sufficient homosexual acts were alleged to justify discharge, the Perry court declined considering the constitutionality of the rebuttable presumption and statements prong of the military policy. That issue was revisited in the consolidated case Holmes v. California Army National Guard, however, where the Ninth Circuit ruled that military personnel who "tell," without also presenting evidence to rebut the inference that they engage in homosexual acts, may constitutionally be discharged from the service. According to the court, "We agree with the Second, Fourth, and Eighth Circuits on this issue. Although the legislature's assumption that someone who has declared his homosexuality will engage in homosexual conduct is imperfect, it is sufficiently rational to survive [equal protection] scrutiny."41
In Able v. United States,42 upholding the DADT policy, the Second Circuit faulted a contrary federal district judge's decision for failing to give proper deference to Congress and the military judgment. The opinion emphasized a judicial tradition of applying "less stringent standards" of constitutional review to military rules than to laws and regulations governing civilian society. Judicial deference was warranted by the need for discipline and unit cohesion within this "specialized community," matters for which courts "are ill-suited to second-guess military judgments that bear upon military capability and readiness."43 In addition, "extensive Congressional hearings and deliberation" provided a "rational basis" for the government's contention that the prohibition on homosexual conduct "promotes unit cohesion, enhances privacy and reduces sexual tension."44 Consequently, the court concluded, "[g]iven the strong presumption of validity we give to classifications under rational basis review and the special respect accorded to Congress' decisions regarding military matters, we will not substitute our judgment for that of Congress."45
Some argue that the Lawrence ruling in 2003 altered the constitutional framework for analyzing both Article 125 and the DADT policy. According to this view, by finding a fundamental liberty interest in consensual homosexual activity, Lawrence demanded closer scrutiny of both the means and ends of these military policies. Under traditional equal protection doctrine, the legislature has broad latitude to draw lines based on any "non-suspect" classification—homosexuality included—provided only that the policy is "rationally related" to a "legitimate" governmental interest. In the past, the military has satisfied this "lenient" test by invoking the need for unit cohesion, discipline, and morale—interests uniformly affirmed by pre-Lawrence appellate courts to uphold the DADT policy. The government generally bears a far greater burden, however, when defending any action that interferes with individual rights or liberty interests deemed "fundamental" for due process purposes. To pass constitutional muster, the challenged measure or policy must be "narrowly tailored" to a "compelling" governmental interest.46
In this regard, Article 125 has been criticized by its opponents for codifying the same "moral disapproval" as the Texas statute involved in Lawrence and for being overbroad and underinclusive. One commentator stated:
This broad ban does not limit itself to sodomy on military premises, nor to acts of sodomy between superiors and inferiors in the chain of command.... It is not limited to any context in which one might think there were secondary effects separate from moral disapproval. Lawrence tells us that mere disapproval, standing alone, is an inadequate basis for such a law.47
Consequently, some have argued that military interests in good order and discipline previously accepted by the courts are not sufficient to trump the liberty interest identified by Lawrence. Supporters of the continued viability of Article 125 and the DADT policy, however, have argued that there is no immediate parallel between constitutional precedent as applied to the civilian and military sectors. Thus, the unbroken line of appellate decisions supporting policies against homosexuality, aided by the modern military deference doctrine, would as likely tilt the balance in the government's favor in any judicial contest. Moreover, some have argued that whatever implications Lawrence may have on Article 125, a penal statute, may not be directly translatable to the DADT policy, which provided for administrative separation from the military, but no criminal penalty.
The task of parsing these issues fell to the courts as they confronted a new generation of legal challenges to the military's policies regarding homosexuality. In 2004, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which is the military's highest judicial tribunal, issued a decision regarding the appeal of an Air Force linguistic specialist who was convicted by court martial on sex-related charges, including consensual sodomy with a subordinate. That case, United States v. Marcum, appears to have established the current standard that military courts use to evaluate post-Lawrence challenges to military policies regarding homosexuality.48 A central issue in the case was whether Lawrence nullifies Article 125 and compels reversal of the service-member's sodomy conviction. The appeals court upheld Marcum's conviction, but not strictly on the basis of homosexual activity, instead pointing to the inappropriateness of sex between subordinate and superiors in the same chain of command. In dicta, the court strongly suggested that Lawrence's ban on laws prohibiting sexual intimacy may apply to the military as well. It even went on to "assume without deciding" that Marcum's conduct did fall within the protections of Lawrence. Such protection, however, was insufficient to shield him from the gender-neutral charge of sex with a subordinate.
In reaching its decision, the Marcum court established a test that provides guidance on how to apply the principles of Lawrence to the military environment. Any challenge to convictions under Article 125 is reviewed on a case-by-case basis according to the following three-part test:
First, was the conduct that the accused was found guilty of committing of a nature to bring it within the liberty interest identified by the Supreme Court? Second, did the conduct encompass any behavior or factors identified by the Supreme Court as outside the analysis in Lawrence [e.g., involving public conduct, minors, prostitutes, or persons who might be injured/coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused]? Third, are there additional factors relevant solely in the military environment that affect the nature and reach of the Lawrence liberty interest?49
In the wake of Marcum, some courts appeared to be skeptical of challenges to Article 125 and DADT, especially when other factors, such as homosexual activity with a subordinate, are involved. For example, in Loomis v. United States, the United States Court of Federal Claims applied the Marcum test to the case of a lieutenant colonel who was discharged for homosexual conduct.50 Because the lieutenant colonel was of significantly higher rank than the private with whom he had had sexual relations, the court found that "the nature of the relationship between plaintiff and the PFC ... is such that consent might not easily be refused and thus it is outside of the liberty interest protected by Lawrence."51 In other cases, however, courts were more receptive to Lawrence-based challenges to military policies regarding homosexuality. For example in United States v. Bullock,52 the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals relied on Lawrence to overturn the guilty plea of a male soldier who engaged in consensual oral sodomy with a female civilian in a military barracks. Although the case involved heterosexual conduct, it appears to be the first decision by a military tribunal to recognize a right to engage in consensual adult sodomy, under principles that may be equally applicable to Article 125 prosecutions targeting homosexual activity.53
Meanwhile, only two federal courts of appeals have issued decisions in cases involving post-Lawrence challenges to DADT, and both of these courts grappled with questions regarding the standard of review that should apply. The problem is that the Lawrence decision did not explicitly deem the right to engage in private consensual homosexual conduct to be a "fundamental" liberty interest, nor did the Court specifically identify the standard of review to be used in the future. Indeed, the decision appeared to apply neither traditional rational basis review nor strict scrutiny. The two federal appellate decisions that addressed this issue—Witt v. Department of the Air Force and Cook v. Gates—are discussed below, as is the more recent decision in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, in which a district court used the new post-Lawrence standard of review established by the Witt court to rule that DADT was unconstitutional.
Identifying the standard of judicial review to apply was the central issue in Witt v. Department of the Air Force,54 a decision in which the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reinstated a lawsuit against the military's DADT policy. In 2004, Major Margaret Witt, a decorated Air Force officer who had been in a long-term relationship with another woman, was placed under investigation for being a homosexual. Although Witt shared a home 250 miles away from base with her partner, never engaged in homosexual acts while on base, and never disclosed her sexual orientation, the Air Force initiated formal separation proceedings against her due to her homosexuality. Witt filed suit in district court, claiming that the DADT policy violated her constitutional right to procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection, but the district court dismissed her suit for failure to state a claim.55 The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the equal protection claim, but remanded the procedural and substantive due process claims to the district court for further consideration.
Finding that the result in Lawrence was "inconsistent with the minimal protections afforded by traditional rational basis review" and that the cases upon which the Lawrence Court relied all involved heightened scrutiny, the Ninth Circuit ultimately held that "Lawrence applied something more than traditional rational basis review," but left open the question whether the Court had applied strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, or a different type of heightened scrutiny.56 Hesitating to apply traditional strict scrutiny to Witt's claim in the absence of the application of "narrow tailoring" and "compelling governmental interest" requirements in Lawrence, the Ninth Circuit instead looked to another Supreme Court case that had applied a heightened level of scrutiny to a substantive due process claim.57 Extrapolating from its analysis of this case, the Ninth Circuit concluded:
We hold that when the government attempts to intrude upon the personal and private lives of homosexuals, in a manner that implicates the rights identified in Lawrence, the government must advance an important governmental interest, the intrusion must significantly further that interest, and the intrusion must be necessary to further that interest. In other words, for the third factor, a less intrusive means must be unlikely to achieve substantially the government's interest.... In addition, we hold that this heightened scrutiny analysis is as-applied rather than facial.... Under this review, we must determine not whether DADT has some hypothetical, post hoc rationalization in general, but whether a justification exists for the application of the policy as applied to Major Witt.58
Although the court ruled that the government clearly advanced an important governmental interest in management of the military, the court was unable to determine from the existing record whether DADT satisfied the second and third factors and therefore remanded the case to the district court for further development of the record. In 2010, the district court ruled in favor of Major Witt. In evaluating whether the government had met its burden under the second prong of the Ninth Circuit's test, the district court concluded:
[t]he evidence produced at trial overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the suspension and discharge of Margaret Witt did not significantly further the important government interest in advancing unit morale and cohesion. To the contrary, the actions taken against Major Witt had the opposite effect.... The evidence before the Court is that Major Margaret Witt was an exemplary officer.... Her loss within the squadron resulted in a diminution of the unit's ability to carry out its mission.59
Because the district court held that DADT, as applied to Witt, did not further the government's interest, the court did not address the third prong of the three-part test, which would have required the government to establish that DADT was necessary to further that governmental interest. Instead, the court held that the application of DADT violated Witt's substantive due process rights and ruled that she should be reinstated as soon as possible.60 Witt and DOD ultimately reached a settlement agreement in the case.61
Notably, the district court's decision in favor of Major Witt did not invalidate the DADT policy. Unlike a facial claim, in which the constitutionality of a statute is evaluated on its face as if it applies to all hypothetical plaintiffs, the Ninth Circuit directed that the constitutional inquiry in Witt be conducted on an "as applied" basis. As a result, the impact of the decision by the district court was limited to Major Witt and did not apply to other plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the ruling may have encouraged an increase in the number of individual challenges filed by service members discharged pursuant to DADT, given that the Ninth Circuit established a more stringent standard for the military to meet.
Shortly after the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in the Witt case, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit handed down a decision upholding a lower court's dismissal of a challenge to DADT brought by 12 gay and lesbian veterans who had been discharged under the policy. In the case, Cook v. Gates,62 the First Circuit agreed with much of the Ninth Circuit's reasoning in Witt, although the opinions differed in some important respects. Like the Ninth Circuit, the First Circuit concluded that the Lawrence case "did indeed recognize a protected liberty interest for adults to engage in private, consensual sexual intimacy and applied a balancing of constitutional interests that defies either the strict scrutiny or rational basis label."63 In contrast to the Ninth Circuit, however, the First Circuit evaluated the claim as a facial challenge and concluded that the plaintiffs' challenge failed. According to the court, the Lawrence decision recognized only a narrowly defined liberty interest in consensual adult sexual activity that excludes other types of sexual conduct, including homosexual conduct by service members.64 Although the First Circuit noted that an as-applied challenge might involve conduct that does fall within Lawrence's protected liberty interest—such as homosexual conduct occurring off-base between consenting adults—the court nevertheless concluded that such as-applied challenges fail when balanced against the governmental interest in preserving military effectiveness.65 As a result, the court dismissed the plaintiffs' as-applied challenge.
In contrast to these appellate court decisions, only one federal court—the United States District Court for the Central District of California—has ruled that DADT is unconstitutional on its face. In its 2010 ruling in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, the court held that DADT violates both the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.66 In reaching its decision, the court applied the standard of review set forth in Witt, which requires that governmental intrusions into the private lives of homosexuals in a manner that implicates the rights identified in Lawrence must " advance an important governmental interest,  the intrusion must significantly further that interest, and  the intrusion must be necessary to further that interest."67 Because the Witt court held that DADT does advance an important governmental interest, the district court focused on the second and third prong of this test.
After considering a wide range of evidence, including the legislative history of DADT, the testimony of various service members, and expert testimony, the district court determined that DADT did not significantly further the government's interests in military readiness or unit cohesion. Although the government relied exclusively on the legislative history of DADT, the court found that history, much of which lacked empirical evidence regarding the effect of allowing individuals who are gay to serve in the military, failed to prove that DADT advanced military readiness or unit cohesion.68 In contrast, the court found that the evidence introduced by the plaintiff established that DADT did not significantly further the governmental interest in military readiness or unit cohesion. The court cited several factors in reaching this conclusion, including evidence that (1) the number of service members discharged pursuant to DADT dropped significantly after 2001, indicating that the military was willing to retain gay service members during wartime; (2) the military discharged service members with critically needed skills and training; (3) DADT negatively affected military recruiting; (4) the military was admitting less qualified enlistees due to troop shortages; and (5) the military routinely delayed the discharge of service members suspected of violating DADT until after they had completed their overseas deployments.69 Therefore, the court held that "the evidence introduced at trial shows that the effect of the Act has been, not to advance the Government's interests of military readiness and unit cohesion, much less to do so significantly, but to harm that interest."70
Likewise, the court held that DADT was not necessary to advance the government's interests. For example, the court cited several government officials who stated that DADT undermined the governmental interest in military readiness, as well as various witnesses who testified that DADT was unnecessary for the purpose of furthering unit cohesion.71 As a result, the court concluded that the government had failed to satisfy its burden under the Witt standard because DADT did not significantly further the government's interests, nor was it necessary to achieve those interests.
In addition, the court held that DADT violated the plaintiff's First Amendment right to free speech. As a preliminary matter, the court determined that DADT "discriminates based on the content of the speech being regulated" because "[i]t distinguishes between speech regarding sexual orientation, and inevitably, family relationships and daily activities, by and about gay and lesbian servicemembers, which is banned, and speech on those subjects by and about heterosexual servicemembers, which is permitted."72 Although content-based restrictions on speech are subject to heightened judicial scrutiny, courts traditionally apply a more deferential level of review to military restrictions on speech. Under this standard, "regulations of speech in a military context will survive Constitutional scrutiny if they 'restrict speech no more than is reasonably necessary to protect the substantial government interest.'"73
Examining the evidentiary record, the court cited examples regarding the scope and effect of DADT restrictions on speech, including (1) witness testimony indicating that DADT prevented gay service members from discussing their personal lives with their colleagues, thereby undermining trust and unit cohesion; (2) testimony regarding the chilling effect that DADT had on the reporting of violations of military codes of conduct; (3) evidence that DADT prevented gay service members from openly joining organizations or lawsuits that challenge DADT, thereby preventing them from exercising their legal rights; and (4) evidence that DADT punished gay service members for engaging in purely private behavior, such as writing letters or e-mails.74 Therefore, the court concluded that DADT restricted a far greater range of speech than was necessary to protect the government's interests and frequently undermined military readiness and unit cohesion rather than advance these goals.
Having concluded that DADT violated both the Fifth and First Amendments, the court ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to a permanent injunction barring the enforcement of DADT.75 On October 12, 2010, the court issued a nationwide injunction that permanently and immediately enjoined DOD from applying or enforcing DADT against any service member.76 Although DOD initially complied with the injunction, the government also filed a notice of its intent to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit and requested that the district court stay the injunction pending appeal, as well as issue a temporary administrative stay.77 On October 19, 2010, the district court denied the government's request for an emergency stay of its injunction,78 and the government subsequently appealed by seeking a stay from the Ninth Circuit.79 On October 20, 2010, the Ninth Circuit granted the government's request for a temporary stay of the injunction while the court considered whether to issue a stay of the injunction for the duration of the appeals process.80 On November 1, 2010, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the government and issued a stay of the district court's injunction pending appeal,81 meaning that DOD was permitted to continue to apply and enforce DADT while awaiting a final ruling from the Ninth Circuit on the merits of the appeal.
On July 6, 2011, the Ninth Circuit lifted its stay of the district court's ruling, citing government briefs in a lawsuit involving DOMA as evidence that the Obama Administration no longer intended to defend the constitutionality of laws that contain classifications based on sexual orientation.82 As a result, the district court's ruling that DADT is unconstitutional was reinstated, as was the injunction barring enforcement. However, the government asked the court to reconsider its order so that DADT repeal could proceed in a more orderly fashion under the process set forth in the repeal legislation. On July 22, 2011, the Ninth Circuit partially granted the government's motion, retaining the stay of the district court's judgment except with regard to certain enforcement activities. Specifically, the court held that the "district court's judgment shall continue in effect insofar as it enjoins the government from investigating, penalizing, or discharging anyone from the military pursuant to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy."83
Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit never ruled on the merits of the lawsuit. In light of the repeal of DADT, the appeals court determined that the challenge was moot, vacated the district court's ruling, and remanded the case to the district court for dismissal.84
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994, P.L. 103-160 (codified at 10 U.S.C. §654).
10 U.S.C. §654(a).
Id. at §654(b).
Id. at §654(f).
Department of Defense, Separation of Regular and Reserve Commissioned Officers, Directive 1332.30, December 11, 2008, 9, http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/133230p.pdf.
Id. at 27.
Office of the Secretary of Defense, Summary of Changes: Revisions to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Regulations, http://www.defense.gov/news/Summary%20of%20Changes%20DADT.pdf.
Specifically, the revised regulations raised the level of commander authorized to begin an inquiry or separation proceeding regarding homosexual conduct and restricted the types of evidence that can be used to initiate such an inquiry or separation proceeding. For example, the revised regulations raised the standard for what constitutes credible evidence of homosexual conduct by requiring third parties to provide information under oath and by discouraging the use of overheard statements and hearsay. In addition, the revised regulations specified that certain categories of confidential information will no longer be used in support of discharges, including information provided to lawyers, clergy, psychotherapists, medical professionals in furtherance of medical treatment, or public health officials in the course of a public health inquiry, as well as information provided in the course of seeking professional assistance for domestic or physical abuse or information obtained in the course of security clearance investigations. Department of Defense, Separation of Regular and Reserve Commissioned Officers, Directive 1332.30, March 25, 2010, http://www.defense.gov/news/DoDI%201332%2030%20-%20REVISIONS%20032510.pdf; Department of Defense, Enlisted Administrative Separations, Directive 1332.14, March 25, 2010, http://www.defense.gov/news/DoDI%201332%2014%20-%20REVISIONS%20032510.pdf.
Department of Defense, Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," November 30, 2010, http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2010/0610_dadt/DADTReport_FINAL_20101130%28secure-hires%29.pdf.
Undersecretary of Defense Clifford L. Stanley, Memorandum for Secretaries of the Military Departments, Department of Defense, Repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and Future Impact on Policy, Washington, DC, January 28, 2011, http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2010/0610_dadt/USD-PR-DADT_28Jan11.pdf.
Karen Parrish, Same-sex Couples Can Claim New Benefits by October, Department of Defense, Washington, DC, February 13, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=119260.
1 U.S.C. §7.
United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).
478 U.S. 186 (1986).
539 U.S. 558 (2003).
Id. at 578 (internal quotations and citations omitted). For more information on both the Bowers and Lawrence decisions, see CRS Report RL31681, Homosexuality and the Constitution: A Legal Analysis of the Supreme Court Ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, by [author name scrubbed].
U.S. Const. art. I, §8.
United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968).
U.S. Const. art. II, §2.
Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503, 507 (1986).
Rostker v. Goldberg, 453 U.S. 57 (1981).
Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733, 758 (1974).
475 U.S. 503 (1986); 453 U.S. 57 (1981).
Goldman, 475 U.S. at 507, quoting Orloff v. Willoughby, 345 U.S. 83, 92 (1953).
Id. at 528 (O'Connor J., dissenting).
453 U.S. 57 (1981).
429 U.S. 190 (1976).
Rostker, 453 U.S. at 66.
Id. at 64-68.
80 F.3d 915 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 948 (1996).
Id. at 923.
Id. at 931.
945 F. Supp. 924 (E.D.Va. 1996), aff'd per curiam, 139 F.3d 893 (4th Cir. 1998).
97 F.3d 256 (8th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 807 (U.S. 1997).
Philips v. Perry, 106 F.3d 1420 (9th Cir. 1997); Holmes v. California Army Nat'l Guard, 124 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir 1997), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1067 (U.S. 1999).
Id. at 1135. See also Jackson v. Dep't of the Air Force, 132 F.3d 39 (9th Cir. 1997) (holding that individuals who are gay are not members of a suspect class and that the military's regulations are rationally related to a legitimate government interest and are not arbitrary or irrational).
155 F.3d 628 (2d Cir. 1998).
Id. at 634.
Id. at 636.
Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
"Gay rights ruling gets test in military," NLJ, vol. 27, No. 7. pp. 1, 33 (quoting David Cruz of the University of Southern California Law School).
60 M.J. 198 (C.A.A.F. 2004).
Id. at 206-07.
68 Fed. Cl. 503 (Ct. Cl. 2005).
Id. at 519. See also, United States v. Barrera, 2006 CCA LEXIS 215 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2006).
2004 CCA LEXIS 349 (A.C.C.A. November 30, 2004).
But see United States v. Stephens, 2007 CCA LEXIS 428 (N-M.C.C.A. October 11, 2007).
527 F.3d 806 (9th Cir. 2008).
Witt v. United States Dep't of the Air Force, 444 F. Supp. 2d 1138 (W.D. Wash. 2006).
527 F.3d 806, 817 (9th Cir. 2008).
Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003).
527 F.3d 806, 819 (9th Cir. 2008).
Witt v. United States Dep't of the Air Force, 739 F. Supp. 2d 1308, 1315 (W.D. Wash. 2010).
Id. at 1316. The court, however, rejected Witt's procedural due process claim. Id. at 1317.
Lisa Keen, "DoD, Witt Settle Over DADT Case," Windy City Times, May 18, 2011.
528 F.3d 42 (1st Cir. 2008), cert. denied, Pietrangelo v. Gates, 129 S. Ct. 2763 (2009).
Id. at 52.
Id. at 56.
Id. at 60.
2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93612 (C.D. Cal. September 9, 2010).
Id. at *69 (citing Witt v. Dep't of the Air Force, 527 F.3d 806, 819 (9th Cir. 2008)).
Log Cabin Republicans, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS at *69-79.
Id. at *79-91.
Id. at *91.
Id. at *92-101.
Id. at *112.
Id. at *114 (citing Brown v. Glines, 444 U.S. 348, 355 (1980)).
Id. at *114-19.
Id. at *120.
Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 716 F. Supp. 2d 884 (C.D. Cal. 2010).
Notice of Appeal, Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, No. CV 04-08425-VAP (C.D. Cal. filed October 14, 2010); Emergency Application to Stay Pending Appeal, Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, No. CV 04-08425-VAP (C.D. Cal. filed October 14, 2010).
Order Denying Defendant's Ex Parte Application for Entry of an Emergency Stay, Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, No. CV 04-08425-VAP (C.D. Cal. filed October 19, 2010).
Government's Emergency Motion for Stay Pending Appeal Under Circuit Rule 27-3 and for Temporary Administrative Stay, Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, No. 10-56634 (Ninth Cir. filed October 20, 2010).
Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 21651 (9th Cir. Cal. October 20, 2010).
Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 22655 (9th Cir. Cal. November 1, 2010), application denied, Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 589 (2010).
Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 16134 (9th Cir. Cal. July 6, 2011).
Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 16310 (9th Cir. Cal. July 22, 2011).
Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, 658 F.3d 1162 (9th Cir. Cal. 2011).