October 3, 2013 at 11:36 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Pentagon pressured to act on Nat’l Guard units denying gay benefits
Adam Smith, Congress, Washington, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Carl Levin (left) and Rep. Adam Smith are calling on the Pentagon to ensure gay troops can apply for spousal benefits at state National Guards. (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Top congressional Democrats on defense issues are calling on the Pentagon to take action as additional state National Guard units are refusing to process spousal benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages, according to a letter obtained Wednesday by the Washington Blade.

In a letter dated Sept. 30, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) write to the Defense Department to express “deep concern” over the unwillingness of certain state National Guard units to process spousal benefits for troops in same-sex marriages.

“Recently, the states of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma have refused to issue or have stopped issuing ID cards in state facilities to same-sex spouses of service members,” the lawmakers write. “Citing statewide bans on marriage for same-sex couples, local policymakers have forced these spouses to travel to federal military installations to apply for their military benefits.”

The letter is significant because it’s the first time federal lawmakers have weighed in on the issue of National Guard units refusing benefit applications for same-sex couples and because Smith and Levin are the top Democrats on the House and Senate armed services committees.

Smith and Levin urge Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to take action to reaffirm guidance he issued in August saying spousal benefits for troops in same-sex marriages should be available nationwide following the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“We urge you to issue further guidance on this matter, reaffirming that all married military couples must be treated equally, and clarifying the state National Guards, because they are funded in large part by federal tax dollars, cannot choose to ignore this order by denying some lawfully married military couples equal access to the federal benefits to which they are entitled,” Smith and Levin write.

The number of state guard units that have announced they won’t issue spousal military IDs for troops in same-sex marriages continues to grow. On Tuesday, the South Carolina National Guard announced that in the wake of the decision, it would stop processing benefit applications altogether and direct all married couples — gay and straight to federal military installations.

According to American Military Partner Association, Indiana has started to deny benefits applications at state-run installations. The Indiana National Guard didn’t respond to a request to confirm that these benefits are being blocked. [UPDATE: After the initial publication of this article, the American Military Partner Association said Indiana rescinded the decision and will process same-sex spouses.]

Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, echoed the sense of Smith and Levin and said the time has come for the federal government to take action.

“These service members and their families deserve better than to be treated poorly by state governors trying to score political points,” Peters said. “We again call on the Secretary of Defense for quick and decisive action.”

The Obama administration has said little in response to the state National Guard units declining the benefit applications for same-sex troops despite the Pentagon directive saying these benefits should be made available even in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage. The Pentagon has directed troops to apply for these benefits at federal installations.

Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, declined to comment on the correspondence or its call for a federal response to the guards.

“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the secretary’s correspondence,” Christensen said. “He responds directly to correspondence received.”

Ian Thompson, legislative representative from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the letter from House Democrats demonstrates that continued withholding of benefits at national guard installations “cannot go unaddressed.”

“The Department of Defense needs to reaffirm that, consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, all married military couples must be treated equally, and state National Guards cannot choose to ignore this order by denying some lawfully married couples equal access to the federal benefits to which they are entitled,” Thompson 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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