Federal lawsuit seeks veteran benefits for same-sex spouses

Photo: Robert McDonald. Credit: Robert Turtil/VA.

Robert McDonald – Photo by Robert Turtil/VA.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was sued in federal court Monday by LGBT-rights advocates seeking benefits for the same-sex spouses of veterans living in states that do not recognize their marriages.

Lambda Legal and the law firm of Morrison and Foerster filed suit against Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald on behalf of the American Military Partner Association in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit arguing that to deny such benefits is in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case.

“Having weathered the federal government’s past, longstanding discrimination against them, lesbian and gay veterans and their families find themselves once again deprived of equal rights and earned benefits by the government they served and the nation for which they sacrificed,” the lawsuit states.

One June 26, 2013, the same day the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage for federal purposes as between a man and a woman, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to work with members of his cabinet to ensure the decision was implemented swiftly and broadly across the federal government. In a June 20, 2014 memo to Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the completion of the implementation of the Windsor decision. However, the Obama administration’s legal interpretation of the “place of domicile” rule prohibits the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the Social Security Administration, from adopting a place of celebration rule for certain programs and forces those agencies to instead confer benefits based on the laws of the state where a married same-sex couple lives. Due to those restrictions, both Holder and the White House renewed their call for Congress to pass legislation that would correct areas of federal law that continue to prevent the extension of benefits.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has argued that the following portion of U.S. Code forces them to look to the state where married same-sex couples currently live: 

In determining whether or not a person is or was the spouse of a veteran, their marriage shall be proven as valid for the purposes of all laws administered by the Secretary according to the law of the place where the parties resided at the time of the marriage or the law of the place where the parties resided when the right to benefits accrued.

But according to the lawsuit filed Monday, the adoption of the place of domicile “imports into federal law unconstitutional state definitions of marital status,” many of which have been overturned by federal courts in the year since the Windsor decision. Federal courts have ruled in favor of marriage equality in Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Oregon, Wisconsin, Indiana and Colorado.

“The VA’s incorporation of state definitions of marital status that discriminate against same-sex couples to determine eligibility for federal spousal benefits is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law,” the lawsuit argues. “It violates the Fifth Amendment, including by impinging on the fundamental right to marry and by denying equal protection on the basis of sexual orientation and sex.”

Moreover, under the VA’s place of domicile rule the same-sex spouses of veterans can be “denied or disadvantaged in obtaining spousal veterans benefits such as disability compensation, death pension benefits, home loan guarantees, and rights to burial together in national cemeteries.”

Susan Sommer, director of Constitutional Litigation at Lambda Legal, said in a statement, “Married veterans and their spouses, wherever they live, need critical veterans benefits, earned through years of often perilous service, to take care of their families.”

“It is simply unacceptable to see AMPA’s members not only discriminated against in their home states where their marriages are disrespected but also turned down by the federal government for basic veterans benefits for their spouses,” added Stephen Peters, a Marine veteran and president of the American Military Partner Association. “Our members will be denied pension and survivors benefits, home loan guarantees, and other earned veterans benefits.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment on pending litigation.

AMPA vs. McDonald

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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