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Activists praise Obama's 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal pledge

By Ed Hornick, CNN
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Repealing 'Don't ask, Don't tell'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama calls for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" policy Wednesday night
  • Obama says the law denies gays and lesbians "the right to serve the country they love"
  • Activist: "Obama stepped up to the plate and made a firm commitment"
  • Sen. John McCain says now is not the right time to get rid of the policy

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama's call in his State of the Union address to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy this year was met with praise from gay activists and questions by top Republicans as to why it should be changed.

"Tonight, President Obama stepped up to the plate and made a firm commitment to work to finally end 'don't ask, don't tell' in 2010," said Alexander Nicholson, founder and executive director of Servicemembers United. "Although brief, his language was plain, his message was clear, and the outline of his strategy was smart."

In his State of the Union speech, Obama said he would work with Congress and the military to repeal the 1993 law that bars openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military.

"[We must] repeal the law that denies gay and lesbian Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do," Obama said.

Nicholson, a former Army human intelligence collector who was honorably discharged in 2002 under the policy, said Obama did something Wednesday night that will cool criticism he has faced from the gay rights community.

President calls for repeal

"He didn't pass the buck ... he seemed to take the bull by the horns and fully commit," said Nicholson. "I thought it was pretty clear that he intends to do it this year and take a leadership role."

Obama said he would work to repeal the policy during his 2008 campaign but was criticized by gay and lesbian groups when the issue didn't emerge as a priority over the first year of his presidency.

Nicholson said that activists truly feel that the issue's time has arrived, and it's "game on for us."

"Ready or not, we have to take this on ... I think we'll get it [repealed]."

In a statement to CNN, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said that it applauds the president's message and hopes for the repeal to be included in the defense budget.

"We call on the president to repeal the archaic 1993 law in his defense budget currently now being drafted, that is probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year," the statement reads. "What is also needed is more attention and leadership to win repeal."

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pennsylvania, an Army veteran and vocal supporter of repealing the policy, applauded Obama for tackling this issue.

Video: 'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal?
Video: Obama on same-sex rights
Video: Gay servicemembers speak out
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"I'm glad that President Obama is calling for Congress to repeal the wrongful policy known as 'don't ask, don't tell,' as he did repeatedly on his campaign," he said in a statement. "It is ridiculous that American taxpayers have spent $1.3 billion to kick brave, talented Americans out of the military simply because of their sexual orientation. ... It is time to repeal this ridiculous law that hurts our national security and military readiness."

But one of the military's leading supporters said "don't ask, don't tell" should remain in effect.

"This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in a news release. "At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy."

McCain's stance was echoed by the House's top Republican.

"When it comes to don't ask, don't tell, frankly, I think it's worked very well. And we just ought to leave it alone," House Minority Leader John Boehner said at a news conference on Wednesday.

But there is solid support for the repeal coming from a former high-ranking military official.

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili said it's time to repeal the law.

"As a nation built on the principal of equality, we should recognize and welcome change that will build a stronger, more cohesive military," said Shalikashvili. His letter was sent out on Wednesday by "don't ask, don't tell" opponent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, who told reporters on Monday that the president would discuss "don't ask, don't tell" in his speech, supports ending the practice but wants to go about it carefully.

"If we do this in a way which isn't sensitive ... we could have exactly the opposite effect of what I hope will be the case, which is to change the policy," he said Monday.

Levin said the committee plans to hold hearings on the issue in early February, although the hearing may be with outside experts. That would delay a hearing with the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen that had originally been scheduled.

CNN's Laurie Ure contributed to this report.

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