November 14, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Udall seeks action on benefits for gay veterans
Mark Udall, Democratic Party, United States Senate, Colorado, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is calling on the Obama administration to stop enforcing portions of Title 38. (Photo public domain)

Months after the Obama administration announced it would no longer enforce a portion of U.S. code barring married gay veterans from receiving certain spousal benefits, one Colorado Democrat is calling for further action to ensure former troops receive these benefits no matter where they live.

In a letter dated Nov. 11, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) calls on President Obama to cease enforcement of Section 103(c) of Title 38 of the U.S. Code, which looks to the state of residency, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a veteran is married.

“You have been a tremendous leader in working to end discrimination against the LGBT community during your presidency, and I know you would agree that there is no military interest or other governmental purpose met in continuing to apply the law in a way that disadvantages same sex couples,” Udall writes. “In this spirit, I ask that this discriminatory action cease while efforts to change the statute proceed through Congress.”

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. Attorney General had announced in September the administration wouldn’t enforce the portions of Title 38 that define marriage for veterans in opposite-sex terms. But other portions of the law remain under enforcement.

As noted in the Udall letter, Section 103(c) of Title 38 of the U.S. code prohibits the recognition of a veteran’s same-sex marriage if the couple apply for benefits in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage.

“In determining whether or not a person is or was the spouse of a veteran, their marriage shall be proven as valid for the purposes of all laws administered by the Secretary according to the law of the place where the parties resided at the time of the marriage or the law of the place where the parties resided when the right to benefits accrued,” the law states.

According to an accompanying statement from Udall’s office, this section of the law has caused continued issues. Two Colorado residents, one of whom served in the Air Force for 10 years and was deployed four times, were denied federal VA benefits because Colorado doesn’t recognize their marriage. The couple lives in Colorado, but married in another state earlier this year.

Udall writes that Obama should apply the same standard to the section of Title 38 prohibiting recognition of gay veterans’ marriage in non-marriage equality states as he did for other sections of the law.

“Addressing this particular section of the law in Title 38 and ensuring that other veterans around the country do not suffer the same injustice my constituents have endured is important, is just and is urgent,” Udall said. “Therefore I ask you to work with the Attorney General and the VA to take immediate action.”

Some of the spousal benefits allocated under Title 38 are disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery.

Veterans’ benefits are but one portion of U.S. code preventing benefits from flowing to married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states even after the court decision against DOMA. The Social Security Administration has yet to announce whether it will award spousal benefits to married gay couples living in states that don’t recognize their unions because of a similar statute under Social Security law.

The White House deferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs for comment, which said the situation is currently under review.

“VA is working closely with the Department of Justice to develop guidance to process cases involving same-sex spousal benefits, and to implement necessary changes swiftly and smoothly in order to deliver the best services to all our nation’s Veterans,” said VA spokesperson Drew Brookie. “Our commitment to provide all Veterans and their families with their earned care and benefits will continue to be our focus as VA implements the President’s decision.”

Advocates who work on issues for LGBT service members and post-DOMA implementation say they share the concerns that Udall expresses in the letter.

Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partners Association, called for clarity from the administration.

“It was previously assumed that the announcement by the Justice Department concerning Title 38 meant that the Veterans Administration (VA) was moving toward equal recognition and support for all veterans and their families, regardless of their orientation or gender of their spouse,” Peters said. ”However, there is much confusion on why veterans with same-gender spouses are still being denied equal benefits. We need a clear answer from the administration.”

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, also said the Obama administration needs to articulate a clear path forward.

“We certainly need and want clarity just as soon as possible from the VA as to how they will apply the place of residence statute,” Sainz said.

Udall’s full letter follows:

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

I write today about a critical issue affecting our nation’s veterans and their families. As you know, earlier this year the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Since that time the Department of Justice has been working with federal departments and agencies to align their rules and restrictions to conform with the court’s finding in United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (June 26, 2013).

It is in that context that I am requesting that you direct the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of Section 103(c) of Title 38 of the United States Code. Section 103(c) reads as follows:

“In determining whether or not a person is or was the spouse of a veteran, their marriage shall be proven as valid for the purposes of all laws administered by the Secretary according to the law of the place where the parties resided at the time of the marriage or the law of the place where the parties resided when the right to benefits accrued.”

In Colorado, the effect of this section of the law has been to discriminate and deny appropriate Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits to veterans and their spouses. You have been a tremendous leader in working to end discrimination against the LGBT community during your presidency, and I know you would agree that there is no military interest or other governmental purpose met in continuing to apply the law in a way that disadvantages same sex couples. In this spirit, I ask that this discriminatory action cease while efforts to change the statute proceed through Congress.

As you know, on September 4, 2013, Attorney General Holder notified Congress that, as President, you directed the Executive Branch to no longer enforce Sections 101(3) and 101(31) of Title 38 because those sections of law appear unconstitutional in light of Windsor. For the same reason, I believe it is consistent to expand the suspension of enforcement to Section 103(c).

There is a universal feeling in this country that our servicemembers, veterans and their families deserve respect and support during and after their service and the kind of discriminatory treatment this law furthers is simply unacceptable. Addressing this particular section of the law in Title 38 and ensuring that other veterans around the country do not suffer the same injustice my constituents have endured is important, is just and is urgent. Therefore I ask you to work with the Attorney General and the VA to take immediate action.

Thank you for your consideration of this request. We, as a nation, have made historic progress over the past year in furthering LGBT equality, due in large part to your leadership.

I look forward to your response and stand ready to work with you to fix this issue for all of our nation’s veterans.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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