THE policy on homosexuals and the military announced by President Clinton this week was based on his notion that individuals have a right to an opportunity to serve in the armed forces if, given the military's unique needs and demands, that is where their sense of service and talents leads them. At the same time he affirmed "the individual's responsibility to conform to the high standards of military conduct."
A key issue has been whether those who identify themselves as homosexuals can be compatible with military service. The political process is an unsatisfactory forum for weighing the social, moral, and spiritual issues implicit in that question. The policy debate will go on with the recognition that while many have been dismissed from the service for homosexual behavior, many others have served and are serving with distinction. That the Pentagon elected to stop administrative discharges, including those fo r alleged homosexuals, during the Gulf war suggests that the current debate may be one the country can afford only in peacetime.
Yet the unit cohesion that serves the military in combat is built in peacetime. Now that the president has set the policy, with the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and presuming Congress does not alter it, the Pentagon must implement it in ways that protect the dignity of all concerned. This will be difficult, given the strong feeling expressed over the last six months as the policy took shape, but not impossible.
Mr. Clinton's changes appropriately focus on conduct. But they do so in ways sufficiently contradictory that the policy is vulnerable to constitutional challenges on free-speech and equal-protection grounds. For example, if a homosexual publicly announces he or she is gay, the policy states that this action carries a "rebuttable presumption" of homosexual conduct, which is prohibited. Yet that same individual can participate out of uniform in a gay parade or spend off-duty time at a gay bar - both public
activities - without this initiating official inquiries about homosexual activity. The American Civil Liberties Union is already set to test the new policy in court, although the White House and Pentagon claim that the changes will stand up.
The policy's inconsistencies reflect society's grappling with the larger issues of privacy, identity, and individual rights in a democratic society rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Seen in that context, it is important that all those who continue to engage the issue inside and outside the military do so without rancor or condemnation. For those who, like us, find scriptural guidance sufficient on the larger moral questions involved, there remains in that guide no support for bigotry, intolerance,
or disrespect of the individual.