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Court Ruling Renews Debate On Women And The Draft

There has not been a military draft in the United States since conscription was ended in 1973. Still, all men, whether citizens or residents of the United States, are required to register with the selective service once they turn 18.

But late last week, a federal judge declared that exempting women from that registration requirement violates the Constitution's equal protection principles.

This does not mean, though, that women will have to register as well — at least not for now.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gray Miller did not tell the Selective Service System to stop requiring all 18-year-old men to register. The Houston-based judge simply rejected the arguments that agency had made for limiting the requirement to men.

"There really is no more excuse to only require men to register," says Marc Angelucci, the lawyer who sued the selective service on behalf of the National Coalition for Men, a group that advocates against what it calls "discrimination against men."

Angelucci, who is also the NCFM board's vice president, says because women are now allowed to serve anywhere in the military, including combat positions, there is no longer a plausible argument for exempting them from the obligation to sign up for a possible draft.

"We take no position on whether there should or shouldn't be a draft, or even on whether or not women should be in combat," says Angelucci. "Our concern is that if there is a requirement to register, and women are allowed in combat, then women should share the same responsibilities as men — because with equal rights comes equal responsibilities."

Angelucci says the NCFM may now seek a court injunction to halt male-only draft registration. The selective service has yet to file an appeal in this case.

"Things continue here at selective service as they have in the past, which is men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register with selective service," says Jacob Daniels, the service's legislative liaison. "And at this time, until we receive guidance from either the court or from Congress, women are not required to register with selective service."

The selective service unsuccessfully argued that the court should postpone any decision until after a National Commission on Military, National and Public Service set up by Congress issues its final report a year from now.

Former Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who chairs that commission, says that report will recommend whether women should register for the draft. "It is a critically important question that we will answer," says Heck. "It is the No. 1 charge that was given to us by Congress, but where we will be on that answer is yet to be determined."

In a prepared statement, Heck says Miller's ruling that the male-only draft registration is unconstitutional means that "change is inevitable and the status quo is untenable."

Whatever Heck's commission does recommend to Congress, it would not be binding. It would also not be the first time lawmakers have grappled with the issue.

Three years ago, Congress took up legislation requiring women to register for the draft, but it was scuttled after running into a buzzsaw of opposition. "The idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls into combat, to my mind makes little and no sense," Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, an Armed Services Committee member and father of two girls, said at the time during a Senate floor debate. "[It is] a radical change ... being foisted on the American people."

Not all Republican lawmakers see it that way. "If we're going to continue to make progress and not have any differentiation between men and women in the workforce," says North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who also serves on the Armed Services panel, "I think it's an issue that we should look at."

So does another Armed Services member who is also the Senate's most highly decorated military veteran. "As long as all of the positions are open to women, then, yes, I think that both young men and women in this nation should be given equal opportunity to serve," says Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was flying was shot down in Iraq. "And that means everyone registers."

It's an issue that could end up before the Supreme Court — unless Congress acts first.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.