WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's top general expressed regret Tuesday that he called homosexuality immoral, a remark that drew a harsh condemnation from members of Congress and gay advocacy groups.
In a newspaper interview Monday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had likened homosexual acts to adultery and said the military should not condone it by allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Pace was asked about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve if they keep their sexual orientation private and don't engage in homosexual acts.
Pace said he supports the policy, which became law in 1994 and prohibits commanders from asking about a person's sexual orientation.
"I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," Pace said in the audio recording of the interview posted on the Tribune's Web site. "I do not believe that the armed forces of the United States are well served by a saying through our policies that it's OK to be immoral in any way."
In a statement Tuesday, he said he should have focused more in the interview on the Defense Department policy about gays — and "less on my personal moral views."
He did not offer an apology, something that had been demanded by gay rights groups.
Pace's senior staff members said earlier that the general was expressing his personal opinion and did not intend to apologize. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak on the record.
On its Web site, the advocacy group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network called Pace's comments “outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops now serving in our armed forces.”
The group, which has represented some of the thousands dismissed from the military for their sexual orientation, demanded an apology.
Some lawmakers object
Others quickly expressed their feelings. In a written statement, Sen. John Warner, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed dissatisfaction with Pace's comments. "I respectfully but strongly disagree with the chairman's view that homosexuality is immoral," Warner's statement said.
Later Tuesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she was “disappointed in the moral judgment” in Pace's comments.
Rep. Martin Meehan, who has introduced legislation to repeal the current policy, also criticized Pace's comments.
"General Pace's statements aren't in line with either the majority of the public or the military," said the Massachusetts Democrat. "He needs to recognize that support for overturning (the policy) is strong and growing" and that the military is "turning away good troops to enforce a costly policy of discrimination."
Others back the general
Pace had his supporters on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Duncan Hunter said that homosexual conduct "is not moral conduct" and that the right of Pace to express his views "is what Marines go to war and fight for...to have morals."
The presidential aspirant and top House Republican on military matters said that "Marines are allowed to have principals" and that in his view, Pace's views "will receive a resounding 'yes' from Marines defending our rights" to have morals and principles.
Hunter referred to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, passed by Congress after a firestorm of debate in which advocates argued that allowing homosexuals to serve openly would hurt troop morale and recruitment and undermine the cohesion of combat units.
Hunter said the policy “is one of the reasons that President Clinton lost Congress” in 1994.
General cites his upbringing
Pace, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, told the Tribune he based his views on his upbringing.
"As an individual, I would not want (acceptance of gay behavior) to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else's wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not. We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior," he said, according to the audio and a transcript released by his staff.
The newspaper said Pace did not address concerns raised by a 2005 government audit that showed some 10,000 troops, including more than 50 specialists in Arabic, have been discharged because of the policy.
Louis Vizcaino, spokesman for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said Pace's comments were "insulting and offensive to the men and women ... who are serving in the military honorably."
"Right now there are men and women that are in the battle lines, that are in the trenches, they're serving their country," Vizcaino said. "Their sexual orientation has nothing to do with their capability to serve in the U.S. military."
John Shalikashvili, the retired Army general who was Joint Chiefs chairman when the policy was adopted, said in January that he has changed his mind on the issue since meeting with gay servicemen.
"These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers," Shalikashvili wrote in a newspaper opinion piece.
MSNBC's Mike Viquiera and The Associated Press contributed to this report.