The Obama administration will provide veterans benefits to many married same-sex couples, another step by the federal government toward treating gay couples in the same way as their heterosexual counterparts after a landmark Supreme Court ruling.
The move, announced Wednesday in a letter to Congress by Attorney General Eric Holder, tackles one of the thorny legal issues resulting from the high court’s decision in June to strike down parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
However, Wednesday’s move extends veterans benefits only to married gay couples living in states that recognize such unions, officials said. Couples in other states won’t be eligible yet.
Gay marriage is recognized by 13 states and the District of Columbia. The U.S. has roughly 114,000 legally married same-sex couples, with about two-thirds of those couples living in states where their marriages are recognized, according to Gary Gates, a scholar with the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The limitation in extending veterans benefits points to a larger legal challenge for the administration, which also has yet to decide whether Social Security benefits should be extended to all same-sex spouses.
Some benefit rules, including those at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration, are written into laws passed by Congress. That means altering them—and expanding benefits to gay couples nationwide—would likely require new action by Congress or follow-on court rulings.
The law on Social Security says benefits should be granted to those who are married under the laws of the state where they reside, and part of the law on veterans uses similar language. June’s Supreme Court decision didn’t challenge states’ rights to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the Obama administration began analyzing hundreds of laws and regulations to ensure married gay couples receive equal treatment when it comes to federal taxes, benefits and immigration rights. Homeland-security officials said after the court ruling that they would treat all married couples equally in immigration matters.
In Wednesday’s letter, Mr. Holder notified senior lawmakers the administration would no longer enforce a particular section of law on veterans benefits that had excluded same-sex couples. That will allow gay couples in which at least one spouse is a veteran to qualify for benefits that heterosexual veterans and their spouses receive, so long as the couples live in states that recognize gay marriage. The rule change will be implemented as soon as practical, officials said.
“In these unique circumstances, continued enforcement…is no longer appropriate,” Mr. Holder wrote in the letter, which also noted a decision last week by a federal judge in California saying married gay couples couldn’t be excluded from veterans benefits.
“I think the administration, with this decision, is doing right by our veterans as well as faithfully executing the Supreme Court decision,” said the Human Rights Campaign’s Michael Cole-Schwartz. “You shouldn’t have two different kinds of marriage. As we go through and iron out these kinks, I expect there may be further litigation and it’s possible for Congress to right these inequities.”
Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, which is against gay marriage, said his group opposes “how the Obama administration has responded to the Supreme Court decision,” adding that “you still have a conflict between state law and federal law.”
The decision marks the latest instance of the federal government’s rewriting of its rules on married gay couples. Last week, the Internal Revenue Service said same-sex couples would be treated as married for federal tax purposes, including income, gift and estate taxes. The IRS move covers couples who marry in one state and move to another that doesn’t recognize their union.
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal