Gay groups are protesting the military's urging to Congress to delay repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” the 1993 law that forbids gay troops from serving openly.

In a letter to Representative Ike Skelton signed by both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, the men said they “strongly oppose” lifting the gay ban before the Pentagon completes its review of how best to implement changes should Congress repeal the law. The study – ordered by Gates – is due in December.

“Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully,” Gates and Mullen wrote.

The letter is a response to a request from Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee. Skelton does not support repeal of the gay ban.

In a statement issued late Friday, the White House said it supported the military's recommendation for delay.

“The president's commitment to repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is unequivocal. This is not a question of if, but how. That's why we've said that the implementation of any congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed. The president is committed to getting this done both soon and right.”

Gay groups immediately protested the military's push to delay repeal this year.

“With all due respect to Secretary Gates, it is Congress that determines the legislative schedule, not the Secretary of Defense,” Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group that lobbies for repeal of the law, said. “Congressional leaders and repeal advocates may need to give the Pentagon leaders a gentle reminder.”

Sarvis said that his group “repudiates the delay game plan” being coordinated by Skelton, Gates, Mullen and the White House.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocate, is quoted by the AP saying that delay would send the message to gay troops that “the impact on them and their families does not matter to the military leadership, including their commander in chief.”

Most supporters of repeal concede passage in the Senate will be difficult and had hoped to avoid a direct confrontation by tucking repeal language into next year's defense budget. The window to act, however, is quickly coming to a close as markups for the 2011 defense authorization bill on both sides of Congress are expected to take place within the next 3 weeks. A House vote may come as early as May 24.

Sarvis challenged the notion that supporting the Pentagon's study requires ending legislative action and urged the president to comment.

“This objective can be accomplished by amending both the House and Senate bills to expressly provide for the Pentagon recommendations to be received and considered by the Armed Services Committees before any repeal is final,” he said. “There is no need to bring the legislative repeal effort to a screeching halt to ensure that the views of the Pentagon Working Group are carefully and respectfully considered.”

Michigan Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, is expected to sponsor repeal language in the defense budget in the Senate, while Representative Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is considered the most likely to offer the legislation in the House.