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Case arguing against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy


After a highly decorated 18-year career in the Air Force, Major Margaret Witt was discharged based on an allegation that she had engaged in sexual conduct with another woman: a civilian with whom she was in a committed relationship, in their home, miles from any military base. The ACLU of Washington sued, claiming that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and its application to Witt, violates her rights of liberty and equal protection. Lambda Legal submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrating that, because of the victory we achieved in Lawrence v. Texas, the government cannot demand that individuals completely sacrifice their constitutional right to sexual intimacy with a same-sex partner in order to serve in the armed forces.


Since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute was passed in 1993, more than 14,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual service members were discharged from the military. The military is the nation’s largest employer and its antigay policy destroyed careers, wasted tax dollars, deprived our nation’s armed forces of talented individuals who want to serve their country, and sent a horrible message that it is acceptable to force gay people to live in the closet.

Lambda Legal’s Impact

Lambda Legal worked for more than three decades to support the liberty interest and equal treatment of those who have sought to serve in the military. This case has highlighted the unfairness of selectively telling only gay people that they cannot serve and have any sexual intimacy with their partners. Lambda Legal’s victory in the Lawrence case provided authoritative weight to our friend-of-the-court brief explaining the effect of that victory on the military’s policy. The success of the Witt case at the Ninth Circuit and the district court contributed to Congress’s passage of legislation allowing the executive branch finally to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

    • April 2006 ACLU of Washington files lawsuit in federal district court challenging the discharge of Major Margaret Witt and the constitutionality of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.
    • July 2006 Federal district court denies Witt’s motion for a preliminary injunction and grants the government’s motion to dismiss.
    • October 2006 Lambda Legal files friend-of-the-court brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
    • May 2008 Ninth Circuit rules that a service member can only be discharged if the government proves that doing so is necessary to further unit cohesion and morale.
    • September 2010 Federal district court rules that the government failed to show that Witt’s discharge was necessary and orders her reinstated.
    • November 2010 The government appeals the district court’s ruling but does not seek a stay of Witt’s reinstatement.
    • December 2010 Congress passes bill allowing the executive branch to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
    • May 2011 Maj. Witt reaches a settlement in her lawsuit. She will retire with full benefits, the government will drop its appeal of the federal court ruling in her favor, and the unlawful discharge will be removed from her military service record.