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Leader of Joint Chiefs says he regrets remarks on gays

But the Marine general doesn't apologize for calling homosexual acts `immoral,' despite widespread criticism.

March 14, 2007|William Neikirk and Karoun Demirjian | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed mild regret Tuesday for calling homosexual acts "immoral," but he stopped short of an apology as gay rights groups and a powerful Republican senator rebuked him for the comments.

As critics fired rhetorical volleys, Pace issued a statement expressing regret that he had put so much stress on the morality issue when he defended the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military during a Monday interview with the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.

"In expressing my support for the current policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct," Pace said in his statement. "I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views."

But this statement did not mollify critics who called the general's remarks insensitive and outrageous and said he should apologize.

Pace's comments drew wide attention on television, radio and the Internet and showed how sensitive the Pentagon's policy has become. His senior staff members said he was expressing personal views and did not intend to apologize.

Still, the incident provided a strong hint that Congress might hold hearings this year on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy approved during the Clinton administration, which allows gays to serve in the military as long as they do not disclose their sexual orientation.

That clue came when Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, took issue with the general.

"I respectfully but strongly disagree with the chairman's view that homosexuality is immoral," Warner said. "In keeping with my long-standing respect for the Armed Services Committee hearing process, I will decline to comment on the current policy until after such hearings are held."

Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has the right to call hearings, had no comment on Pace's remarks. A spokeswoman said no decision had been made on whether to hold hearings on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Repeal of the ban on gays who acknowledge their sexual orientation and serve in the military would be highly controversial. Democratic presidential candidates such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina favor a repeal, whereas GOP contenders such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would maintain the policy.

An Obama spokeswoman said the senator agreed with retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wrote recently that he favored the repeal because the military was having a tough time recruiting and training troops.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, another Democrat seeking the presidency, called Pace's comments unfortunate and said the administration should reject them.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), also a presidential contender, said, "Gen. Pace's comments were completely out of line. Many gay and lesbian members of our military have served their country honorably over the years, and I find it outrageous that at a time when we need as many good people serving in the military as possible, we are still talking about excluding people based on their sexual orientation."

Legislation to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy has been introduced in the House by Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), and it has more than 100 co-sponsors.

Meehan said Tuesday that Pace's comments were not in line with those of a majority of the public or the military, and that sentiment for repeal "is strong and growing," according to the Associated Press.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that has represented homosexuals dismissed from the military, said, "Pace's comments are outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops now serving in our armed forces."

Eric Alva, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group supporting gay rights, said, "This policy -- and Gen. Pace's bigotry -- is outdated, unnecessary and counter to the same American values our soldiers are giving their lives for each and every day."

In the Tribune interview, Pace said his views were based on his upbringing.

"I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," Pace told the Tribune editorial board. "I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way.

"As an individual, I would not want [acceptance of gay behavior] to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else's wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not," he said. "We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior."

Although his senior staff made clear Tuesday that Pace would not apologize for the remarks, the general issued his statement in an effort to downplay them and declare that he should have discussed policy and not his opinion.

"People have a wide range of opinions on this sensitive subject," he said. "The important thing to remember is that we have a policy in effect, and the Department of Defense has a statutory responsibility to implement that policy."

The general added: "I made two points in support of the policy during the interview. One, 'don't ask, don't tell' allows individuals to serve this nation, and two, it does not make a judgment about the morality of individual acts."

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