Washington (CNN) -- President Obama said Wednesday night he will work with Congress and the military to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars gays and lesbians from openly serving in the armed forces.
Obama made the remark in his first State of the Union speech during a short litany of civil rights issues, which included his successful hate crimes bill, a move to "crack down on equal-pay laws" and improvement of the immigration system.
"We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it," he said.
"We must continually renew this promise. My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination. We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate," he said.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."
Former Navy pilot Sen. John McCain said "it would be a mistake" to repeal the 1993 law that bars gay men and lesbians from revealing their sexual orientation, and prevents the military from asking about it.
"This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels," McCain said. "We have the best-trained, best-equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country, and the men and women in uniform are performing heroically in two wars. At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy."
But in a message to Pentagon leadership, Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it's time to repeal the law.
"As a nation built on the principal of equality, we should recognize and welcome change that will build a stronger more cohesive military," said Shalikashvili. His letter was sent to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who supports repealing the policy.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that works with those affected by the "don't ask, don't tell" law, praised Obama's call for repeal.
"We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010," the group said. "We call on the president to repeal the archaic 1993 law in his defense budget currently being drafted, that is probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year. ... The American public, including conservatives, is overwhelmingly with the commander in chief on this one."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, flatly disagreed with the idea of ending it.
"When it comes to 'don't ask don't tell,' frankly, I think it's worked very well. And we just ought to leave it alone," he said to reporters Wednesday morning.
The policy prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. armed forces.
The policy bans military recruiters or authorities from asking about an individual's sexual orientation but also prohibits a service member from revealing that he or she is gay.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, supports ending the practice but wants to go about it carefully.
Levin said he did not have any details about what the president would say.
"If we do this in a way which isn't sensitive ... we could have exactly the opposite effect of what I hope will be the case -- which is to change the policy," he said Monday.
Levin said the committee plans to hold hearings on the issue in early February, although the hearing may be with outside experts -- delaying a hearing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, that had originally been promised, CNN was told by a congressional source.
Obama campaigned on the promise that he would repeal the law in his first year of office.
Speaking to the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, in October, Obama admitted that "our progress may be taking longer than we like," but he insisted his administration was still on track to overturn the policy.
"Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach," he said.
Pentagon Spokesman Geoff Morrell deflected repeated questions about the policy at Wednesday's Pentagon briefing, directing reporters to take their questions to the White House.
"We continue to work on this problem," said Morrell. "But I'm not going to get into it with more specificity than that."
CNN's Ed Hornick and Laurie Ure contributed to this report.