The most senior miltary office in the US Armed Forces has reignited the controversy about his views on gays in the military while giving evidence to a Congressional committee.

Challenged by Senator Tom Harkin about his comments on the “immorality” of gay people being a reason for excluding them from miliary service, General Peter Pace reiterated that he thinks the Bible should guide policy.

“And we need to be very precise then, about what I said wearing my stars and being very conscious of it,” said General Pace, who steps down as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next week.

“And that is, very simply, that we should respect those who want to serve the nation but not through the law of the land, condone activity that, in my upbringing, is counter to God’s law.”

“My upbringing tells me that sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman is immoral. That’s what I was taught. That’s what I believe.”

His comments enraged anti-war protesters watching the hearing, who shouted shouting “Thou shalt not kill” at him.

The hearing had to be suspended.

When it resumed, General Pace emphasised that in his view celibate homosexuals can serve in his opinion.

General Pace, a Marine, had earlier admitted he should not have expressed his personal view on homosexuality as he did in May when he told the Chicago Tribune that homosexual acts are immoral and that the Armed Forces should not be a party to any form of immorality.

His boss, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and leading Republican and Democratic politicians condemned his remarks.

He was roundly criticised by gay rights activists, among them Sgt. Eric Alva, the first soldier wounded in the Iraq war, who recently came out of the closet.

However, it was an indirect rebuke from General Pace’s superior, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that may have prompted him to admit he should have kept his views private.

Gates said that personal opinions have no place in discussion of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” introduced in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton.

Now that General Pace is about to stand down from the most senior post in the US Armed Forces, he took the opportunity to restate his support for “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” on religious grounds.

The policy states that commanders may not ask the sexual orientation of service members.

Gay men and lesbians can only continue to serve only if they do not engage in homosexual acts, and keep their sexual orientation a secret.

The Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said in May that moral judgments from General Pace were not needed.

“We need the most talented people; we need the language skills. We need patriotic Americans who exist across the board in our population,” she said.

A Republican Senator and former Navy Secretary, John Warner from Virgina, said he “disagreed strongly with the chairman’s view that homosexuality is immoral.”

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was a compromise between hard-core Republicans who wanted a ban on gays in the military, and Bill Clinton, who along with many Democrats believed that serving your country is not incompatible with being open about your sexuality.

The Clinton camp asserted that the resulting compromise was not a question of morality, but of attaining cohesion within combat units.

Critics say that the bill is counterproductive, and that if the law were lifted the Pentagon would find it easier to maintain the dwindling forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American public opinion seems to be shifting on gay people serving in the military, at a time when all branches of the Armed Forces are struggling to recruit.

A Harris Interactive survey, conducted in January, found that 55% of the 2,337 people questioned felt openly gay, bisexual or lesbian personnel should be allowed to serve.

General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff when the controversial policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was introduced, has come out against the policy.

The general, who retired in 1997, said that conversations with gay service members, “showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.”

The retired general’s comments were backed by a Republican politician who was in charge of the US Armed Forces for four years.

William Cohen served as Defence Secretary from 1997 – 2001 under Democrat President Bill Clinton.

The US has discharged over 10,000 military personnel for being gay or lesbian since 1993.