WASHINGTON -- An internal Pentagon study has found most U.S. troops and their families don't care whether gays are allowed to serve openly and think the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" could be done away with, say officials familiar with its findings.
The survey results were expected to be used by gay- rights advocates to bolster their argument that the 1993 law on gays could be repealed immediately with little harm done to the military. But the survey also was expected to reveal challenges the services could face in overturning the long-held policy.
The Pentagon declined to discuss the findings until after Dec. 1, when it rolls out its own plan for repeal.
President Obama has said "don't ask, don't tell" unfairly discriminates against gays. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the military's top uniformed officer, agree but want to move slowly to ensure military effectiveness won't suffer.
Among their top concerns is that forcing too much change, too soon on an institution that historically has been reluctant to embrace gays could prompt a backlash among troops.
With a Democratic- controlled Congress already considering a change to the law, Gates in February ordered a yearlong study into the matter. As part of that effort, the Pentagon sent out about 400,000 surveys to troops and another 150,000 to family members on the military policy toward gays.
Officials said the working group is analyzing the results and working on a plan to overturn the policy should Congress repeal the law.
Gay-rights groups attacked the survey, saying it assumes troops don't want to serve with openly gay service members and uses the term "homosexual," considered to be derogatory.
Meanwhile, dozens of retired military chaplains say serving both God and the U.S. armed forces would be impossible for chaplains whose faiths consider homosexuality a sin.
If a chaplain preaches against homosexuality, he could conceivably be disciplined as a bigot under the military's nondiscrimination policy, the retired chaplains say. The Pentagon says chaplains' religious beliefs and their need to express them will be respected.
Clergy would be ineligible to serve as chaplains if their churches withdraw their endorsements, as some have threatened to do if "don't ask, don't tell" ends.
"The bottom line is religious freedom," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee, one of 65 former chaplains who signed a letter urging keeping "don't ask, don't tell."