The U.S. Justice Department will stop enforcing federal law barring married gay couples from veterans’ benefits, clearing the way for payments to begin, according to a letter sent to congressional leaders.
Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers he would no longer defend the statute in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and a recent court ruling that called language in the law unconstitutional.
“Continued enforcement would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health-care, home loan and other benefits,” Holder said in the letter to lawmakers including House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Holder’s action is the latest move from President Barack Obama’s administration as it implements the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. The law denied benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allowed it.
Obama, in a June statement after the decision, said he had directed Holder to work with members of his cabinet “to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”
The Justice Department announced in 2011 it would no longer defend the law, known as DOMA, after a determination that it was unconstitutional. A similar standard will apply to veterans’ benefits, which are defined in statute as available to a spouse who is “a person of the opposite sex.”
Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, in an August letter to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, said the existing law would “not confer spousal status for purposes of eligibility for VA benefits.”
A federal judge in California last week ruled that same-sex spouses must be eligible for the same veterans’ benefits as married heterosexual couples after the Supreme Court decision.
Holder, in the two-page letter, said Obama has “directed the Executive Branch to cease enforcement” of the sections of the law barring the benefits.
While the Supreme Court decision didn’t directly address the veterans’ benefits statute, “the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment,” Holder said.
Veterans and gay-rights groups today announced their support for the decision and called for quick implementation.
Alexander Nicholson, legislative director for the New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called Holder’s decision a “smart move.” His organization supported overturning the section of DOMA that prevented same-sex couples from being recognized as spouses under federal law.
“All service members need to be treated equally and need to have their families taken care of equally,” Nicholson said. “It would have been a waste of time and money” for the Justice Department to continue enforcing laws that barred gay spouses from sharing veterans benefits, he said.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Missouri-based Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in an e-mail that “we hope that VA moves quickly to implement this change and begins paying veterans and eligible survivors promptly.”
Victoria Dillon, acting press secretary for the Veterans Affairs Department, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment about how much it will cost the agency to provide benefits to gay spouses.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the announcement “rests solidly” on the principle laid out by the Supreme Court.
“The Obama administration is doing right by our veterans and faithfully executing the Supreme Court’s opinion and we look forward to guidance as to how the VA will treat veterans and their spouses living in states that do not recognize their marriages,” Cole-Schwartz, whose Washington-based group advocates for gay rights, said in an e-mail.
Shaheen has sponsored legislation in the Senate that would expand federal benefits for married gay couples by amending the definition of “spouse” in federal law. The Veterans Affairs Committee approved the bill in July.
A similar House bill, from Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, hasn’t moved forward in that chamber.
The decision clears the way for the Veterans Affairs Department to join a growing list of federal agencies that have implemented changes since the Supreme Court ruling.
The Treasury Department last week said gay spouses in all states will be treated as married under federal tax law. The Defense Department said last month it would make the same benefits available to same-sex spouses that are available to opposite sex spouses.
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