WASHINGTON -- Transgender recruits will be allowed to enlist in the military beginning Jan. 1, the Pentagon said Monday, as President Donald Trump's ordered ban suffered another legal setback.
The new policy reflects the hurdles the federal government would have to clear before it could enforce Trump's demand earlier this year to bar transgender individuals from the military.
Three federal courts have ruled against the ban, including one Monday in Washington state, and a federal court judge on Monday denied a government request to set aside the January start date for enlistment.
In October, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly barred the Trump administration from proceeding with its plan. One effect of the ruling was that the military would be required to allow transgender people to enlist beginning Jan. 1.
The government, who have argued that implementing such a significant change in policy may "negatively impact military readiness," asked Kollar-Kotelly to put the requirement on hold while they appealed her full ruling. She declined that request Monday, reaffirming the Jan. 1 start date.
The Justice Department is now asking a federal appeals court to intervene and put the Jan. 1 requirement on hold.
In a statement, the Pentagon said it will comply with the court's order while pursuing an appeal, writing that "[Defense Department] and the Department of Justice are actively pursuing relief from those court orders in order to allow an ongoing policy review scheduled to be completed before the end of March."
Maj. David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, said the enlistment of transgender recruits will begin next month and proceed amid legal battles. The Defense Department also is doing a review, which is expected to carry into 2018.
But potential recruits will have to overcome a lengthy and strict set of physical, medical and mental conditions that could make it difficult for them to join the armed services.
Eastburn said the new guidelines mean the Pentagon can disqualify potential recruits with gender dysphoria or a history of medical treatments associated with gender transition, as well as those who underwent reconstruction. But such recruits will be allowed if a medical provider certifies they've been clinically stable in the preferred sex for 18 months and are free of significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas.
Transgender individuals receiving hormone therapy must be stable on their medication for 18 months.
The requirements make it challenging for a transgender recruit to pass. But they mirror concerns President Barack Obama's administration laid out when the Pentagon initially lifted its ban on transgender service last year.
"Due to the complexity of this new medical standard, trained medical officers will perform a medical prescreen of transgender applicants for military service who otherwise meet all applicable applicant standards," Eastburn said.
Aaron Belkin, director of the California-based Palm Center, an independent institute that has conducted research on sexual minorities in the military, said the 18-month timeline is fair.
"It's a good standard because the Pentagon is treating gender dysphoria according to the same standards that are applied to all medical conditions," he said.
The policy change to allow transgender people to serve in the military was initially issued by the Obama administration in June 2016. It would've allowed transgender people to serve openly and receive funding for sex-reassignment surgery.
The Defense Department was gearing up to accept transgender applicants starting in July 2017 and had started training and other preparations. But in July, Trump surprised military leaders and members of Congress when he announced the proposed ban in a series of tweets.
In October, Kollar-Kotelly found challengers likely to prevail in asserting that the president's order violates equal-protection guarantees in the Constitution.
A federal judge in Baltimore issued a preliminary injunction in November that goes further, preventing the administration from denying funding for sex-reassignment surgeries.
Because of the work that had already been done after Obama's order, Kollar-Kotelly ruled Monday that "the Court is not persuaded that Defendants will be irreparably injured by" meeting the Jan. 1 deadline.
"With only a brief hiatus, Defendants have had the opportunity to prepare for the accession of transgender individuals into the military for nearly one and a half years," she wrote. "Especially in light of the record evidence showing, with specifics, that considerable work has already been done, the Court is not convinced by the vague claims in [the government's] declaration that a stay is needed."
Furthermore, Kollar-Kotelly noted that the government waited three weeks to appeal her Oct. 30 order, did not file its motion to stay the Jan. 1 deadline until Wednesday, and has not sought any sort of expedited review of her initial decision.
"The Court notes that Defendants' portrayal of their situation as an emergency is belied by their litigation tactics," the judge wrote, adding, "If complying with the military's previously established January 1, 2018 deadline to begin accession was as unmanageable as Defendants now suggest, one would have expected Defendants to act with more alacrity."
Sarah McBride, spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, praised the court's ruling, saying that it affirms "there is simply no legitimate reason to forbid willing and able transgender Americans from serving their country."
But Elaine Donnelly, president for the Center For Military Readiness, said Trump "has every right to review, revise, or repeal his predecessor's military transgender policies, which would detract from mission readiness and combat lethality." Judges, she said, are not qualified to run the military.
Information for this article was contributed by Lolita C. Baldor and Jessica Gresko of The Associated Press and Spencer S. Hsu and Ann E. Marimow of The Washington Post.
A Section on 12/12/2017
Print Headline: Military will let in transgenders; Trump ban suffers a new hit