Judge orders lesbian colonel reinstated

June 02, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Seattle ordered the military yesterday to reinstate a highly decorated nurse who was forced out of the Washington state Army National Guard after acknowledging she is a lesbian.

U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Zilly ordered Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer back to the job she held in 1992, ruling that the military's policy on homosexuals at that time was based solely on prejudice and was a clear violation of the Constitution's equal-protection clause.

At a hastily convened news conference in Seattle yesterday, Colonel Cammermeyer beamed with delight and told reporters: "I feel a little bit like a general who has won a war. There is exoneration."

Judge Zilly's decision dealt with the Pentagon's old policy on homosexuals, not the new regulations that Congress and the Clinton administration agreed on last year. The new rules, known as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue," permit homosexuals in the military as long as they remain silent about their sexual orientation.

But the new rules share many similarities with the old ones, and the administration is defending the old policy in court to set precedents that would make challenges to the new policy more difficult.

Judge Zilly is the latest of several federal judges to find the old policy unconstitutional, raising concern in the administration that the same analysis could be applied to the new policy.

Pentagon officials said last night that they were reviewing Judge Zilly's decision.

Gay-rights advocates yesterday hailed the ruling. "This is yet another statement from the courts that they're looking at the constitutionality of this policy, and it's failing the test," said William Rubenstein, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Indeed, Judge Zilly struck at a basic assumption in the old and the new policy: that homosexual orientation signifies an intent to engage in homosexual conduct.

Judge Zilly ordered the National Guard to expunge any record of Colonel Cammermeyer's sexual orientation to prevent the military from taking any further action against her when she returns to service.

Colonel Cammermeyer's record was the stuff of recruiting posters. When she was a child, her family fled the Nazis after they invaded her native Norway in World War II. After coming to the United States, she joined the Army as a nurse in 1961.

She was awarded the Bronze Star after serving 15 months in Vietnam, supervising a hospital for wounded and dying soldiers. In 1985, she was chosen from 34,000 candidates nationwide as the Veterans Administration's Nurse of the Year.

Colonel Cammermeyer, 52, the mother of four, served as chief nurse for three years after she admitted her homosexuality. Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington appealed to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to retain Colonel Cammermeyer.

But on June 11, 1992, Colonel Cammermeyer was dismissed with an honorable discharge, apparently becoming the highest-ranking officer to be discharged solely because of homosexual orientation.

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