WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday it will stop enforcing a law that blocks benefits to partners of military veterans in same-sex marriages.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Attorney General Eric Holder said that a provision in federal law on benefits to veterans and their families defines “spouse” to mean a person of the opposite sex. He says that definition leaves out legally married same-sex couples and runs afoul of a June Supreme Court ruling.
The court declared unconstitutional a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act restricting the words marriage and spouse to apply only to heterosexual unions. Holder says that like the Defense of Marriage Act, the provision in the veterans benefits law has the effect of placing lawfully married same-sex couples in a second-tier marriage.
“Decisions by the Executive not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare,” Holder told Congress. “Nevertheless, the unique circumstances presented here warrant non-enforcement.”
He said the Supreme Court’s conclusion that DOMA imposes a stigma on everyone in same-sex marriages “would seem to apply equally” to the veterans benefits law.
Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits, given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.
U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said federal law defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex is unconstitutional since the high court’s decision allowing legally married gay couples the right to health care benefits.
Although the Supreme Court did not directly address the constitutionality of the veterans benefits provisions, the reasoning of the opinion “strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional,” Holder wrote.
The Justice Department has been tapped by the White House to ensure that couples in same-sex marriages receive all federal benefits to which they are entitled. The Social Security Administration says it has started processing spousal retirement claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits. Last week, the government said that all legally married gay couples will be able to file joint federal tax returns even if they reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages.