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A federal judge has ordered the US government to immediately suspend a law barring gays from serving openly in the military, in a move hailed by activists battling to end a 17-year-old ban.
The judge placed an injunction preventing US authorities from enforcing the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which requires gay and lesbian service members to keep quiet about their sexuality, or face being kicked out.
But a senior Republican called for the President Barack Obama's administration to challenge the ruling on the policy, the subject of heated debate in the US Senate where an attempt to lift the ban was thwarted last month.
Critics say the law, a 1993 compromise aimed at resolving a long-thorny issue, violates the rights of gay military personnel and has harmed US national security by forcing out some 14,000 qualified troops.
District Judge Virginia Phillips on Tuesday clearly backed those who want the ban lifted, who include Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"The act known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' infringes the fundamental rights of United States servicemembers and prospective servicemembers," she said in her ruling.
The policy also violates due process rights guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, and the rights to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, she said.
She ordered the US administration "immediately to suspend and discontinue any investigation, or discharge, separation, or other proceeding, that may have been commenced" under the policy.
The ruling was immediately hailed by Servicemembers United, which bills itself as the biggest US group for gay and lesbian troops and veterans.
"This order from Judge Phillips is another historic and courageous step in the right direction, a step that Congress has been noticeably slow in taking," said Alexander Nicholson, Executive Director of Servicemembers United.
But he warned about a possible appeal. "While this is certainly news to be celebrated, we would also advise caution in advance of a potential stay from the Ninth Circuit" appeal court.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, urged the Obama administration to comply with the judge's order "and stop enforcing this unconstitutional, unconscionable law that forces brave lesbian and gay Americans to serve in silence."
Obama "has said this law harms our national security and we believe it would be a mistake to appeal the decision," he added.
A senior Republican lawmaker meanwhile called immediately for Obama's administration to challenge the ruling.
"We are a nation at war," said Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"This decision could have a negative impact on military and family readiness since the Department of Defense is unprepared to address the issues that are bound to arise from such a hasty change," he said.
Obama had "made a commitment to our nation?s military leaders. He entrusted our military service chiefs to conduct thorough reviews to determine whether repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' would undermine military readiness.
"In order to sustain that trust, the administration should immediately file a motion to stay the injunction and appeal the overarching decision," he added.
The White House did not immediately react. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said: "We have just learned of the ruling and are now studying it. We will be in consultation with the Department of Justice about how best to proceed."
The US Senate last month blocked a bid to lift a ban on gays serving openly in the military, thwarting the move with political maneuvering that put the issue on a back burner.
In the run-up to November mid-term elections, polls have shown overwhelming US public support for ending the policy.
The Pentagon is carrying out a year-long review into repealing the policy, set to be completed before the end of December, which will help draw up new rules for military service.
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