Victory: The Department of Veterans Affairs must honor marriages of same-sex couples
August 30, 2013
On Thursday, federal judge Consuelo B. Marshall found that federal laws excluding same-sex spouses of U.S. servicemembers from the benefits and protections that military veterans receive are unconstitutional. The judge wrote that there was no rational basis for the Department of Veterans Affairs to bar same-sex spouses from receiving these protections - that it is not related to the goal of gender equality, to any military purposes, or to the military's commitment to caring for veteran families. The judge explained that the definition of "spouse" in Title 38 of the Code of Fedearl Regulations is unconstitutional.
For now, the ruling is limited to married same-sex couples living in states with the freedom to marry. We await further clarification on how military families living in the 37 non-marriage states will be treated.
The ruling 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.
The couple at the heart of the lawsuit, Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris (right), 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."
This video captures more of the couple's story, and demonstrates the wonderful victory this ruling brings for this couple and for all military veterans:
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has already announced that the Department of Justice would not defend Title 38, the law barring same-sex spouses from receiving veteran's protections, and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which defended DOMA after the Obama administration said they would no longer defend the law, has withdrawn from the case.
American Military Partner Association president Stephen Peters applauded the ruling, saying:
Title 38 clearly violated the constitutional rights of our military veteran families. This decision sets our nation on a path to honoring and serving all of our veterans and their families, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Read the full ruling here.