The commandant of the Marine Corps said Thursday that gays should not be allowed to serve openly in the military, becoming the most senior commander to break from President Obama's goal of lifting the ban.
Gen. James T. Conway, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" should be left alone.
"I think the current policy works," he said. "My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, to the president, would be to keep the law such as it is."
Conway's stance is considered crucial because it shows there are sharp disagreements among top officers and within the Joint Chiefs of Staff about whether to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. Opposition from military leaders helped derail earlier efforts to lift the ban, most notably former President Clinton's effort in 1993.
Unlike previous attempts to ease rules, however, top Pentagon officials have endorsed a change. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said this month that he wanted a new policy and that allowing gays to serve openly was a matter of "integrity."
Republicans opposed to changing the policy have said that Mullen's views do not represent those of other senior military leaders.
The chiefs of the various military services have been testifying before the House and Senate this week, and lawmakers have questioned them about the Obama administration's plans to overturn the 1993 law that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly. Since the law was passed, about 14,000 service members have been removed from the military because of their sexual orientation.
During their testimony, none of the chiefs backed Mullen's position by calling for an end to the ban. But all of the chiefs, including Conway, have supported Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' plan to study the effect of changing of the law.
Conway has taken positions at odds with top Pentagon officials in the past, but has not publicly addressed the issue of gays in the military. Conway is due to retire this summer when his term as commandant is up.
He told lawmakers that any policy change should not be judged by its fairness to gays, but by its impact on the military.
"My personal opinion is that unless we can strip away the emotion, agenda and politics and ask [whether] we somehow enhance the war-fighting of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve, then we haven't addressed it from the correct perspective," Conway said.
Conway was challenged, gently, by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has said that he plans to introduce legislation to allow gays to serve openly.
"I hope we conclude that repealing 'don't ask don't tell' will enhance military readiness," Lieberman said.
Some advocacy groups were more direct.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said that any law that pushed out qualified troops during wartime undermined military readiness and effectiveness.
"Gen. Conway was the only chief to say to Congress this week that the law is 'working,' " Sarvis said. "It is not working."