History was made Saturday. One of America's last remaining laws enforcing prejudice was voted into extinction.
After President Obama signs the breakthrough change, gays and lesbians will be accepted into U.S. military service on an equal basis with "straight" Americans. The old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law -- which forced the expulsion of 13,500 from the armed services, and made others lie about their minority orientation -- will be consigned to the bigoted past, where it belongs.
"It is the right thing to do," Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen declared. "No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so. We will be a better military as a result."
Obama said: "It is time to close this chapter in our history. It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the law change will "close the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation." Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said the former "don't ask" statute was "the only law in the country that requires people to be dishonest or be fired if they choose to be honest."
Sadly, more than half of West Virginia's delegation in Congress opposed equality for gays. When the House of Representatives cast a landmark 250-175 vote Wednesday, only Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan supported letting homosexuals enlist. Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Shelley Moore Capito both voted no.
In the U.S. Senate, new Sen. Joe Manchin was the only Democrat against eliminating prejudice -- which embarrassed many West Virginians. Manchin offered an excuse about disliking the timetable for gay enlistment. Then he skipped the Senate session to attend a family party. Without him, the Senate backed gay rights, 65-31. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., stood with his party.
All three of those West Virginia opponents -- Manchin, Rahall and Capito -- will be up for re-election in 2012. Perhaps they were pandering for votes of Appalachian fundamentalists, known for hostility to gays.
The historic action by Congress has profound implications reaching beyond the military. It's a victory in the "culture war." For decades, conservative evangelicals have denounced gays as evil and sought to ostracize them from American society. But the "religious right" is losing the battle. Some recent polls show as many as 80 percent of Americans favor gay equality. Public attitudes have shifted.
(Incidentally, new Sen. Manchin also joined Republicans in opposing the DREAM Act, which would let children of illegal immigrants gain U.S. citizenship by enlisting in the military or enrolling in college. He embarrassed West Virginia twice in the same week.)As for gay human rights, the mostly Democratic majority in Congress deserves praise for taking a historic stride for equality.