Obama Administration: Same-sex couples are eligible for veteran’s protections

Today, September 4, 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama Administration has directed the executive branch to no longer enforce federal laws that prevented legally married same-sex couples from accessing veteran's benefits. The decision means that the spouses of gay and lesbian military veterans will soon be eligible for many protections that straight spouses have - health care, burial, education benefits, VA loans, and more.

The Department of Justice announced the news to Congress today. In a letter, the Attorney General wrote:

In the Obama administration’s latest step to ensure equal treatment for same-sex married couples following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday that President Obama has directed the Executive Branch to take steps allowing for same-sex spouses of military veterans to collect federal benefits.

The new policy means that the administration will no longer enforce statutory language governing the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) that restricts the awarding of spousal benefits to opposite-sex marriages only. The language, contained within Title 38 of the U.S. Code, has, until now, prevented the Executive Branch from providing spousal benefits to veterans—and in some instances active-duty service members and reservists—who are in same-sex marriages recognized under state law.

Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson applauded the administration's decision to stop enforcing these discriminatory laws. He said:

Today the Department of Justice properly affirmed that gay veterans in all fifty states should share in the same respect, support, and protections from the federal government as non-gay veterans, and that no American who has served our country should have to worry about the safety of their loved ones. This is a tremendous victory for America’s legally married gay and lesbian service members and veterans who have bravely and courageously defended our nation, none of whom should be treated as anything less than what they are: married.

The order is in line with the June 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. United States, which struck down the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and led to legally married same-sex couples receiving the 1,100+ protections and responsibilities that marriage triggers at a federal level.

It comes less than a week after a federal judge in California struck down Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations, saying that there is no rational basis for the Department of Veterans Affairs to bar same-sex spouses from recieving these federal protections - that it is not related to the goal of gender equality, to any military protections, or to the military's commitment to caring for veteran families. 

The couple at the heart of the Title 38 lawsuit, Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris, were seeking partner benefits since Tracey is a 12-year veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The women married in California in 2008 and currently live in Pasadena, CA. The suit, Cooper-Harris v. United States, was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and WilmerHale.

Tracey was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2010, and the V.A. determined shortly after that the condition was related to her 12 years of service. "I am in the early stages of a neurological disease that has no cure," Tracey said back in June. "So I am doing everything in my power to ensure my wife does not have to worry about what benefits I earned during the military will be available for her as I get worse. I can't bear the thought of leaving Maggie to fight for the benefits I earned and she is entitled to as my wife while she mourns my loss."

The news from the Department of Justice marks the latest announcement from the federal government declaring how same-sex couples will be impacted by the DOMA ruling. For all of the official statements released so far, click HERE. And for more information on what the end of DOMA means for same-sex couples, look at this 'AFTER DOMA' guide.

Freedom to Marry is continuing to pursue a final end to federal marriage discrimination through the Roadmap to Victory, which calls for advancing work on three tracks - winning more states, growing the majority, and ending federal discrimination - so that we can return to the U.S. Supreme Court with a critical mass of states and undeniable momentum in public opinion so that the court can rule for national resolution. Fully repealing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and working for the broadest implementation of the DOMA ruling - including with regard to the protections for military veterans - are important steps in the path toward national victory.