WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused on Monday to hear a legal challenge to the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a decision that allows the Obama administration to continue its slow, back-burner response to liberal activists who want gays to serve openly in the military.
During last year's campaign, President Barack Obama indicated that he supported eventually repealing the law, but he has made no specific move to do so since taking office in January. The White House has said it won't stop the military from dismissing gays and lesbians who admit their sexuality.
Democrats who control Congress also are not in a hurry to end the policy, which was made law in 1993. Easing the outright ban on gays in the military caused political trouble for President Bill Clinton and Democratic lawmakers that year, and Obama and his congressional allies want to avoid an issue that would roil the public just as they are seeking support for health care and other initiatives.
A Democratic aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee called a review of the law "not a high priority" and said the panel will look at the issue sometime before the end of Obama's term _ but would not specify when. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the committee's plans.
The Supreme Court's decision comes in the first few months of a year that gay rights advocates initially believed would bring the repeal of the law they view as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
But little evidence of action from the Obama administration and Congress has frustrated advocates who accused their usually allied Democratic leaders of selling out.
"Every moment that the administration and Congress delay repealing 'don't ask, don't tell,' our nation is robbed of brave men and women who would risk their lives to keep our country safe," Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, said after the court's denial.
"The time to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell' is now," Solmonese said.
Without comment, the nation's highest court denied a review of an appeal from former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, who was in the Vermont National Guard when he was discharged in 2004.
"I think this decision is an absolute travesty of justice and I think every judge on this court should be ashamed of themselves," said Pietrangelo, who served six years in the Army, seven years in the Vermont National Guard and fought in Iraq in 1991. "It's nothing short of rubber stamping legalized discrimination."
"The Supreme Court is not infallible, they get things wrong, and they got it wrong this time," added Pietrangelo, who now lives in Ohio.
In court papers, the government said a Boston-based appeals court ruled correctly when it threw out Pietrangelo's case because the policy is "rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion."
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military was merely following the law, which he said requires the Pentagon to "separate from the armed services members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts, state they are homosexual or bisexual, or marry or attempt to marry a person of the same biological sex."
The Supreme Court has never heard a case challenging the constitutionality of the 1993 law that was pushed by then-President Bill Clinton and adopted by Congress.
Senior Pentagon officials largely have shied away from discussing changes to the law, calling it a volatile topic for troops already stretched thin by ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A coalition of more than 1,000 retired military officers, including 47 four-star generals and admirals, recently warned Obama that overturning "don't ask, don't tell" could cause problems with recruiting and retaining troops.
Administration officials also point, privately, to lukewarm efforts on Capitol Hill to repeal the policy as a signal of the scant political will behind it.
House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., supports the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but is open to reviewing the law to see if it is "still appropriate for today's military," said spokeswoman Loren Dealy.
In an indication of the political tensions at stake, a Washington-based conservative Christian group that opposes same-sex marriage also weighed in Monday to praise the court decision.
"Military service is a privilege, not a right, and anything that detracts from the ability of our service personnel to fulfill their mission should be prohibited," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a Marine veteran.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late April indicates a majority of American voters believe the law should be overturned. The poll found that 56 percent of 2,041 registered voters who were surveyed nationwide said that "don't ask, don't tell" should no longer be Pentagon policy.
Among voters who have relatives in the military, the number dipped slightly: Half believed the law should be overturned, while 43 percent said it should remain in place. The remaining 7 percent were undecided or did not answer, according to the Quinnipiac poll, which had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.