September 4, 2013 at 2:49 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Feds won’t enforce law barring gay veterans from spousal benefits

Attorney General Eric Holder has notified Congress the DOJ won’t bar gay veterans from spousal benefits under Title 38. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Obama administration has determined that it will no longer enforce a portion of U.S. code governing veterans benefits to deny gay veterans benefits for their same-sex spouses.

In a letter dated Sept. 4, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder notifies U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) of the change in the way the Justice Department will enforce Title 38 of the U.S. code.

“[I]n light of subsequent developments and my recommendation, the President has directed the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of Sections 101(3) and 101(31) of Title 38,” Holder writes. “Decisions by the Executive Branch not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare. Nonetheless, for the reasons described below, the unique circumstances here warrant non-enforcement.”

The letter cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against the Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and the recent district court decision against Title 38 as part of the rationale to cease enforcement of portions of the law.

Some of the spousal benefits allocated under Title 38 are disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery. Gay veterans were previously barred from receiving these benefits because Title 38 defined spouse in opposite-sex terms independently of DOMA.

Holder says in the letter the administration has reasoned that it couldn’t bar gay veterans from spousal benefits under Title 38 because the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA prohibits Congress from enacting laws prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

“Although the Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of the Title 38 provisions in Windsor, the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment,” Holder writes.

Holder continues in the letter that enforcing of Title 38 to bar gay veterans from benefits would also have an adverse effect on veterans seeking protections for their families.

“[C]ontinued enforcement would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits,” Holder writes.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, affirmed that President Obama accepted Holder’s recommendation and directed his administration to no longer enforce Title 38 in a way that would deny benefits to gay veterans.

“This is an important step forward for the families of veterans and their ability to access survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits,” Inouye said. “As the Attorney General’s letter to Congress states, the circumstances of the situation demonstrate that this is the appropriate course of action.”

As Holder observes in his letter, Inouye said the Obama administration has discontinued enforcement of Title 38 after the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group withdrew from lawsuits challenging DOMA, including those challenging the veterans’ statute.

“Even the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has ceased to defend the constitutionality of those provisions of Title 38 in legal challenges,” Inouye said. “This announcement means gay and lesbian veterans who are legally married can better protect themselves and their children. The President believes that all couples who are legally married deserve respect and equal treatment under the law, and his Administration continues to work to implement the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling swiftly and smoothly.”

Boehner’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment on the letter.

The district court ruling that Holder cites in the letter was the result of a lawsuit filed against Title 38 by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who’s suffering from multiple sclerosis and seeking disability benefits for her spouse, Maggie.

Caren Short, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization is “thrilled” with the letter because it means Cooper-Harris and other gay veterans will begin to receive benefits.

“It’s great to know that the ruling in our case helped to convince the executive [branch] to no longer enforce Title 38 because it was discriminating against veterans and their spouses who have served and sacrificed just like every other veterans and every other veteran’s spouse,” Short said. “We’re extremely and are hopeful that benefits will start to flow as they should have been for our clients.”

A VA spokesperson said the department would work to act on the decision by the Obama administration “in a timely manner.”

“VA is working closely with the Department of Justice to update its policies in a timely manner to ensure that the delivery and quality of Veterans’ earned benefits remain at the highest standards,” the spokesperson said. “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 announced today.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the decision from the administration was “great news.” She’s the sponsor of the Charlie Morgan Act, legislation that would have changed Title 38 to enable veterans benefits to flow to same-sex spouses.

“We are in the process of determining if additional legislation is still needed to provide full benefits for all of our veterans,” Shaheen said. “I believe every individual that serves in uniform is entitled to the benefits they’ve earned and I will keep working on this issue until we are certain that is the case.”

The decision marks the first time that the Obama administration has announced it’ll cease enforcement of a law other than DOMA as a result of the Windsor decision. All previous changes made on behalf of same-sex couples following the ruling — such as the extension of tax benefits, offering active duty troops same-sex spousal benefits and allowing bi-national couples to apply for marriage-based I-130 green cards — were the result of regulatory change after the ruling.

In a letter to Congress last year, Holder previously indicated that the Obama administration believes laws barring gay veterans from spousal benefits are unconstitutional and the administration wouldn’t defend them against legal challenges in court. Still, at the time, the administration kept enforcing the laws. That’s changed after the court rulings.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the decision to no longer enforce Title 38 to bar gay veterans from benefits was the right course of action from the Obama administration.

“As the Court said in Windsor, our Constitution does not permit the federal government to single out some married couples for unfair treatment, and today’s announcement from the Justice Department rests solidly on that principle,” Cole-Schwartz said. “For the brave men and women of our armed forces and their spouses to be denied benefits as veterans would be an insult to their service.”

One question that remains in the aftermath of this letter is whether the Obama administration will also interpret the ruling against DOMA to provide spousal benefits to legally married gay veterans applying for benefits in a state that doesn’t recognize their union. A portion of Title 38 unaddressed in the letter looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a same-sex marriage is valid.

Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesperson, said the issue remains “under review” within the Obama administration.

“The Justice Department will continue to work with the VA on figuring out how to go forward on that issue,” Fallon said. “But in the meantime, today’s decision means that if you’re a same-sex married couple in a state that recognizes your marriage, the VA will no longer deprive you of veterans’ benefits.”

Cole-Schwartz called for further guidance from the Obama administration on whether spousal benefits will flow to veterans who have legal same-sex marriages, but live in states that don’t recognize their union.

“The Obama administration is doing right by our veterans and faithfully executing the Supreme Court’s opinion and we look forward to guidance as to how the VA will treat veterans and their spouses living in states that do not recognize their marriages,” Cole-Schwartz said.

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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