As National Guard units in several states refuse to process spousal benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages, one advocate says there’s a unique — yet unlikely — solution: President Obama could federalize the state units.
Ret. Lt. Col. Chris Rowzee, spokesperson on National Guard affairs for the American Military Partner Association, raised the possibility of federalizing the National Guard units to ensure states offer spousal benefits to gay troops.
“This would be an extreme example, but they could … federalize the troops, and in that case, the state governor would have zero say over what the guard unit then does,” Rowzee said. “We certainly hope that it doesn’t come to something like that. We hope that the governors of these states recognize that the right thing to do for these guardsman and these families is to give them support and the entitlements to which they are entitled.”
Rowzee added she’s not calling for Obama to take control of the National Guard units, but noted she wants some kind of response from the Obama administration.
At least four states — Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana — are refusing to give troops in same-sex marriages military IDs for their partners by denying these couples’ applications at state-run facilities. That hampers the couples’ ability to receive health, pension and housing benefits afforded to other service members.
Despite an Aug. 13 directive from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying these benefits should be available nationwide, even in non-marriage equality states, these four states are citing state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage as the reason they cannot enroll these couples into the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System.
The American Military Partners Association has called for a response from the Obama administration to prompt a change from the state National Guards. The more obvious method that has been discussed before is a deprivation of federal funds for these installations as a result of disobeying a federal directive.
Chris Jenks, a former Army judge advocate general and law professor at Southern Methodist University, said federalizing elements of the National Guard and withholding funds are both viable options for Obama.
“Ultimately, if the governors of the four states persist in their order to their state National Guards to not provide benefits to same-sex married guard members, the governors run a risk that the president will federalize those state national guards,” Jenks said. “One hopes it wouldn’t come to that. But if the gay rights movement is the civil rights struggle of our time, it will be interesting to see how far the first African-American president will allow state governors to countermand him.”
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard when the governor of that state was using it to enforce racial discrimination at Little Rock Central High School. In 1963, President Kennedy took similar action in Alabama to desegregate the University of Alabama.
The situation today, of course, isn’t exactly parallel. Eisenhower and Kennedy federalized the units in Arkansas and Alabama to force integration of schools – not to make the guard units themselves operate in a non-discriminatory manner.
Under the relevant statute, the president would have to declare a national emergency in order to bring the National Guard units of those states under his direct command.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization is asking for a federal response to the situation, but does not endorse the idea of federalizing the National Guard units.
“We are urging Secretary Hagel to talk to these state governments about the need to have uniformity and fairness for all service members in accessing the benefits to which they are entitled by law,” Sainz said.
The Obama administration has been quiet on the issue of individual National Guard units resisting the order for nationwide spousal benefits for gay troops.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had no immediate answer when the Washington Blade asked if Obama was aware of the issue and believes these units are violating federal policy. Carney deferred to the Pentagon, but also said he could take the question and talk about the issue later. As of last week, the Blade had not received a White House response.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, would only say troops in same-sex marriages are able to enroll at federal installations.
“All Federal Military installations (in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana) will issue IDs to all those who provide a valid marriage certificate from a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage,” Christensen said.
But Rowzee maintained that directing troops to travel to a federal installation isn’t an adequate solution to the problem. For starters, the issue isn’t just enrollment for benefits, but also participation in guard activities like family readiness programs.
“The rationale that they are using to deny giving me the ID cards to begin with is rationale that very easily could be applied to even something as simple at the spouse being given access to the base, being able to drive to the base to pick up her guardsmen from a deployment,” Rowzee said.
Legal experts who spoke with the Blade agreed the decision to refuse to process these applications violates federal law.
SMU’s Jenks said these states are caught between state and federal governments, but are ultimately exceeding their authority.
“I think the state governments have overreached and it’s unfortunate that they are using the National Guard in a politicized fashion, that’s not why the National Guard exists,” Jenks said. “Ultimately these efforts by the states will not be successful.”
One initiative that has emerged as states have begun to withhold these benefits from gay troops is a petition led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Military Partner Association calling on the Pentagon to reaffirm that all married military personnel are eligible for these benefits.
Another group that is pursuing action on the issue in Texas is Lambda Legal. Representing Alicia Butler and Judith Chedville, a lesbian military couple denied benefits at Camp Mabry, Lambda sent a letter on Sept. 13 to Texas Military Forces saying current policy “fails its troops and their families.” The letter requests a response in 10 days.
Paul Castillo, staff attorney for Lambda Legal, said he “absolutely” thinks Texas is violating federal law by denying benefits to troops in same-sex marriages.
“The state law does not inhibit the National Guard from completing a federal mission,” Castillo said. “The DEERS system and benefit administration is federally funded along with the personnel operating the system, so there’s no reason for them to discriminate in issuing the spousal IDs and enrolling them in the DEERS system.”
Castillo said Texas confirmed receipt of the letter. Since that time, Castillo said communications between Lambda and the state are ongoing, although he couldn’t elaborate on them.
Whether a lawsuit is in the works by any of these groups remains to be seen. None would rule out the possibility of litigation if nothing changes at these guard units.
For Rowzee, the decision of these guard units to withhold benefits is particularly disappointing in the wake of advancements in marriage equality throughout the country following the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Do I honestly believe that the governor of Texas will be forever able to defy a DOD directive? No, and I think he knows that,” Rowzee said. “I think he’s using this issue to try to gain political points, and the problem is it harms people in the meantime. It harms our military families.”