WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The overwhelming majority of Marines oppose sharing sleeping quarters with openly serving gays and lesbians, an obstacle if Congress lifts the ban on gays in the U.S. military, the top Marine said on Tuesday.
Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway, a vocal opponent of ending the military's 17-year-old ban on openly serving homosexuals, told Pentagon reporters of the standing policy: "We'd just as soon not see it change."
"But again, we will follow the law, whatever the law prescribes," Conway said.
The existing Clinton-era policy allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military if they keep quiet about their sexual orientation, but expels them if it becomes known.
The repeal of the policy, known as "Don't ask, Don't tell," is championed by President Barack Obama and gay rights advocates, who see it as a milestone in a campaign for equal rights in the United States. Critics say it will add strain to a force already stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the Marines have criticized ending the ban, many within the military favor allowing homosexuals to serve openly, including the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We sometimes ask Marines what is their preference and I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person that is openly homosexual," Conway, who is retiring in the fall, told reporters.
He said there was not enough funding to create single rooms for all Marines but suggested one possibility would be to recruit volunteers to share sleeping quarters with homosexuals, since a minority of them do not oppose ending the ban.
"Perhaps, you know, a voluntary basis would be the best place to start, without violating anybody's sense of moral concern," he said.
The Pentagon has surveyed troops and is currently polling spouses for a Defense Department study due by December preparing for a potential repeal of the "Don't ask, Don't tell" law.
"My own surveys indicate that it's not age-dependent, it's not rank dependent, it's not where you're from," he said, adding that repeal was "pretty uniformly not endorsed as the ideal way ahead."
That said, Conway was explicit that the Marines would lead the way in repeal if it were enacted.
"We're going to have to lead in this too. There will be a 100 issues out there that we have to solve if the law changes in terms of how we do business," he said. "We cannot be seen as dragging our feet, or some way delaying implementation."
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Sue Pleming; Editing by Stacey Joyce