Steffan again attacks Navy gay ban

February 25, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Former Midshipman Joseph C. Steffan made a new claim yesterday that the Naval Academy violated his constitutional rights by throwing him out after he admitted being gay, saying he was never allowed to defend his right to stay in the Navy.

In a legal brief filed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here, Mr. Steffan renewed his effort to get his commission as a Navy ensign and his Academy diploma -- both denied him in 1987 when he was discharged six weeks before graduation.

He won his constitutional challenge before a three-judge panel of the Circuit Court last November, but the full 10-member court wiped out that victory in January and said it would reconsider the case.

As he had before, Mr. Steffan aimed a barrage of constitutional challenges at the Navy rules that led to his forced discharge, saying those represented only an official effort to "pander to bigotry" against gays.

But he also added a further challenge and argued that he should get his commission and diploma even if the anti-gay rules used against him are upheld in court. He noted that the Clinton administration contends that the ban on gays in effect in 1987 would have allowed admitted homosexuals to stay in the service if they could prove they never engaged in homosexual conduct and never intended to do so.

Mr. Steffan said that he was never told that that option was open to him, and thus his procedural rights were violated by his swift discharge. What he got instead, the former midshipman told the Circuit Court, was "the bum's rush."

In fact, he said, the military usually gives gay or lesbian members of the service 30 days' notice before a hearing on whether they should be discharged, but he was given only 24 hours' notice.

In his new legal argument, Mr. Steffan also sought to refute the Clinton administration's claim that it would be unconstitutional for a court to order the Navy to give him a commission on the theory that that is within the sole power of the president, with Senate approval.

If a court has no authority to rectify the violation of his rights, he contended, it would be the equivalent of allowing the president to refuse to grant a military commission to a Hindu or a Jew for refusing to renounce religious beliefs as a price of a commission.

The Clinton administration has defended the military anti-gay rules used against Mr. Steffan, as well as its more recent and somewhat relaxed version of those rules, by contending that members of the military service would refuse to serve with a comrade they knew to be gay.

That argument was challenged yesterday by a gay member of the Navy who, like Mr. Steffan, is fighting in court for the right to serve in the military. Petty Officer V. Keith Meinhold, whose case is before a federal appeals court in San Francisco, said in a statement given under oath that he has been fully accepted by his colleagues at a new duty station even though it is well known that he is gay.

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