Blog of Rights

New Legislation Addresses Need for Equal Treatment of Military Spouses

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:41pm

Just in time for Independence Day, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act (H.R. 6046).  This important legislation would ensure equality in military and veteran benefits for all military spouses.  It has already garnered the support of 11 additional Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee, as well as Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Last September, when the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) took effect, a discriminatory barrier that had closed off military service to certain individuals based on their sexual orientation was finally brought to an end.  Today, lesbian, gay and bisexual service members are able to serve openly, and, not surprisingly, none of the “doom and gloom” that opponents of repeal predicted materialized.  However, repeal of DADT could do little, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to change the discriminatory treatment of same-sex military spouses and veterans.  

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, there are more than one hundred benefits granted to service members, veterans, and their families which are contingent on marital status, and thus, currently, denied to legally married same-sex military spouses because of DOMA.  These include the ability of a same-sex spouse to participate in the military health care program (Tricare); funding to allow the same-sex spouse of a service member to accompany their spouse when he or she is assigned to a new duty station, which may otherwise be prohibitively expensive; and surviving spouse compensation to the surviving same-sex spouse of a deceased service member.

As Rep. Smith said upon introducing the legislation:

Spouses of service members should not be prevented from receiving the benefits they have earned simply because they are the same sex as their partner.  This discriminatory practice must come to an end.

We could not agree more strongly.  The ACLU is deeply committed to the repeal of DOMA, challenging it both in the courts, as well as pushing for its legislative repeal in the form of the Respect for Marriage Act.  While we see the complete repeal of DOMA as essential, this legislation would address one of the most offensive aspects of the law – the discriminatory treatment of the same-sex spouses of service members and veterans.  

Under the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs would be required to recognize any marriage that has been recognized by a state or the District of Columbia, and provide the same benefits to the spouses of all service members, regardless of their sexual orientation.  The Respect for Marriage Act, which was endorsed by the Obama administration in July 2011, includes the same standard, but it would apply to the entire federal government; returning the federal government to the role it historically played prior to DOMA’s passage in 1996.

During a time in which lesbians and gay men are openly serving in our armed forces, risking life and limb on an equal basis as their straight counterparts, it makes absolutely no sense why same-sex spouses should be denied equal military and veteran benefits.  Rep. Smith deserves a great deal of credit for introducing this new legislation which shines a very helpful spotlight on DOMA’s unconscionable treatment of the same-sex spouses of service members and veterans.  It’s just one more reason why this awful law needs to either be repealed by Congress or struck down by the courts.  In the meantime, members of Congress should support and co-sponsor both the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act and the Respect for Marriage Act.

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