Pressure is increasing on the Obama administration to ensure gay veterans have access to spousal benefits everywhere they go in the country as additional U.S. senators are joining others in a call for action.
In a letter dated Jan. 16 to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, seven senators — led by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) — call on the Obama administration to stop enforcing 103(c) of Title 38 to ensure gay veterans in same-sex marriages can receive spousal benefits.
“We believe taking this action is an important part of DOJ’s responsibility to implement and enforce the legal doctrine created in Windsor,” the senators writes. “Further, if the VA is able to apply 103(c) so that all marriages legally entered into will be recognized, it will provide continuity with the Department of Defense policy that applies to active duty service members and avoid a situation where the federal government is recognizing a person’s marriage one day and ignoring it the next.”
Joining Udall is signing the letter are Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Colo.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as well as lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
A portion of the law governing veterans’ benefits, 103(c) of Title 38, looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a couple is married. That means if a gay couple in which one partner is a veteran weds in a marriage-equality state like New York, but moves to non-marriage equality state like Colorado, the couple won’t be able to apply for these benefits.
The letter emphasizes that the place of residence rule for spousal benefits isn’t a hypothetical problem for gay couples because many have already been denied benefits under this statute. Some of the spousal benefits allocated under Title 38 are disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery.
“Over the last few months, there have been specific instances of legally married couples who were denied VA spousal benefits solely because of their gender and place of residence,” the letter states.
The Obama administration has already taken some action on this issue. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision against DOMA, the Justice Department had announced in September the Obama administration wouldn’t enforce a portion of Title 38 that independently defines marriage in opposite-sex terms.
But no decision has been made on the place of residence rule of Title 38. The Obama administration has said it’s still reviewing whether it can stop enforcing 103(c) of the statute.
In the letter, the senators are critical about the length of time it’s taking to resolve this issue in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision against DOMA in June.
“Unfortunately, nearly six months after that decision we continue to see specific cases where the federal government is withholding federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples,” the letter states. “This appears to be in conflict with the central principle of the Windsor decision, that the federal government should respect the lawful marriages of same-sex couples.”
Dena Iverson, a Justice Department, said in response to the missive, “We’re reviewing the letter.”
The continued enforcement of this 103(c) of Title 38 to deny benefits to gay couples has concerned lawmakers for some time.
In November, Udall wrote a letter on his own to the Justice Department calling on the Obama administration to stop enforcing the place of residence rule to discriminate against gay veterans. Earlier this month, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote a similar letter asking the Obama administration to cease enforcement, citing issues that gay veterans are having with obtaining VA loans.
LGBT groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and American Military Partners Association, have said they share the concerns about the place of residence rule under Title 38. HRC has previously called for clarity from the administration on whether or not it can cease enforcing that section of the law to discriminate against gay couples.
Stephen Peters, AMPA president, reiterated his previous call for the Obama administration to take action in a statement.
“No veteran should be treated differently by the federal government just because he or she is married to someone of the same-gender or lives in a state that does not value the diversity of his or her family,” Peters said.
Alex Nicholson, who’s gay and legislative director of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his organization “absolutely” shares the concerns expressed in the letter.
“IAVA strongly believes that all veterans are entitled to fair and equal treatment with respect to benefits and services provided by the VA,” Nicholson said. “The Supreme Court has been clear that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to federal recognition and benefits, so the administration must proactively resolve the lingering technicalities that have thus far prevented the VA from complying.”
It remains to be seen whether Holder will address this issue — as well as other post-DOMA issues, such as granting Social Security survivor and pension benefits to married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states — in any of his upcoming public appearances. He’s set to deliver testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 29 and is scheduled as the keynote speaker at HRC’s Greater New York Gala on Feb. 8.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article was incorrect about the date on which Holder would deliver testimony before the Senate. The Blade regrets the error.