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Veterans’ Same-Sex Spouses Still Waiting for Benefits

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When the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, more than 1,000 federal laws involving marriage allowed same-sex spouses to reap the same benefits that opposite-sex couples enjoy.

Through something of a loophole, however, those rights were not expanded to same-sex spouses receiving benefits through the Veterans Affairs Department. 

This is because current law does not simply say “marriage” or “spouse,” as do the 1,000 plus laws affected by the DOMA decision; instead, the U.S. code explicitly states the following: “The term ‘spouse’ means a person of the opposite sex who is a wife or husband.”

Other federal agencies have been quick to issue preliminary regulations on the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling on their policies. The Office of Personnel Management put out detailed guidance describing the benefits for which same-sex spouses are now eligible. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a statement that the Pentagon “will immediately begin the process of implementing the Supreme Court’s decision in consultation with the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies,” adding the department “intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation.”

So while husbands and wives of federal employees in same-sex marriages can now enroll in their spouses’ government-sponsored health care, life insurance and other programs -- and private-sector citizens enjoy tax and other benefits of marital status for the first time -- discrimination persists at VA. 

At least for now.

‘Align the VA’

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., has introduced a bill to amend  VA’s definition of “spouse.” The bill -- which currently sits in the House Veterans Affairs Committee -- would require VA to recognize any marriage that is “valid in the place the marriage was entered into,” meaning any state or territory in which same-sex marriage is legal.

“The Supreme Court sends a clear message that all Americans, gay or straight, must be afforded equal protection under the law,” Titus said in a statement. “The Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act would align the VA with our nation’s laws and extend benefits to thousands of deserving military spouses.”

‘Earned and Deserved’

When reached for comment, the VA could not offer any guarantees for future benefits. Randy Noller, a department spokesman, said he could “only offer” the following statement:

“VA is strongly committed to providing veterans and their families the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. Our commitment to our veterans and their families will continue to be our focus as we work to comply with recent Supreme Court decisions.”

Noller added: “VA is working closely with the Department of Justice to review relevant statutes and policies to implement any necessary changes to federal benefits and obligations swiftly and smoothly in order to deliver the best services to all our nation’s veterans.”

Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Most recently, he worked for Financial Times, where he reported on national politics.

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