Gay rights advocate Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag at sunup June 26 in front of the Supreme Court in Washington. Justices are expected to hand down major rulings on two gay marriage cases that could impact same-sex couples across the country and in the military. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
The Supreme Court’s June 26 decision on same-sex marriage opens the door for an expansion of military allowances, health care, housing and survivor benefits, but it could also lead to a new kind of inequality.
The ruling strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. That definition has guided most but not all decisions about federal benefits, including military and veterans’ compensation.
By some counts, there are more than 100 benefits for married couples that could be provided to same-sex couples as a result of the decision, some of them with large financial benefits, such as coverage under the military health care program, paying for a spouse to accompany a service member on a permanent change of station move, and housing allowances — or on-base housing — on the same basis as other couples.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon will begin the process to extend health care, housing and other federal benefits to the same-sex spouses of service members as soon as possible.
“That is now the law and it is the right thing to do,” Hagel said. “Today’s ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.”
However, several sections of policy and law regarding government benefits will have to be rewritten first.
For now, striking down the federal law leaves the question of what constitutes a marriage up to the states, some of which allow and recognize same-sex marriages, but more that do not. The Defense Department could decide to allow same-sex benefits in states where such marriages are legal but deny benefits in other states, creating inequality of benefits based on location in place of the current inequality based on the traditional definition of marriages.
Some key lawmakers are ready to change the law.
The Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, sponsored by key members of the House and Senate armed services committees, would revise the definition of “spouse” for military personnel policies and for military and veterans benefits. A person would be considered a spouse if the marriage happened in a U.S. location where it was legal, even if the couple now lives in a state where same-sex marriage is not allowed. Marriages in states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. territories and possessions would be recognized. Foreign marriages would not.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, are the key sponsors.
The House bill is HR 683. The Senate bill is S 373, and has a slightly different name. It is called the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, named for New Hampshire National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan. Morgan died earlier this year, leaving behind a wife, Karen, who was not eligible for military survivor benefits.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., chief sponsor of the Senate bill, called denial of survivor benefits “ an unacceptable reality” and vowed “I’m committed to doing all I can to make sure that no spouses, children and families are denied benefits they have earned and rightly deserve.”
“Same-sex partners of military service members should not be denied essential benefits because of who they are,” Gillibrand said in February when the bill was introduced. “We must ensure that all of our military families who have sacrificed so much have access to the services and treatment they need and deserve.”
Smith offered the legislation as an amendment to the 2014 defense authorization bill on June 12 but withdrew it without seeking a vote, vowing to be back after the Supreme Court ruling.
The House has now passed its version of the bill, limiting Smith’s options for having his measure considered.
Gillibrand and Shaheen, though, will have an opportunity to attach the Charlie Morgan bill to the Senate’s version of the annual defense policy bill, which has passed the Senate Armed Services Committee but has not yet been taken up by the full Senate.
The bill was placed on the Senate calendar on June 20 but no date has been set to take up the measure.
Defense officials estimate there are more than 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty force. How many of those have married in states where it is legal to do so, and how many may seek to marry now that same-sex spouses will have access to military benefits, is unknown.
Slightly more than half the total active-duty force is married.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.