On Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced that it would no longer enforce a law limiting spousal veterans' benefits to "opposite" sex couples. That's a day after the Pentagon began handing out those benefits to same-sex couples for active-duty troops, backdated to the Supreme Court's June 26 decision striking down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act.
That process, as evidenced by Texas's refusal to distribute those benefits to some gay and lesbian couples, is somewhat complicated. It's complicated for veterans' benefits, too: While some federal departments were able to simply change their regulations in order to comply with the DOMA ruling, the Veterans' Affairs regulations governed by U.S. Code. Title 38, which limits veterans' spousal benefits to "opposite" sex couples, uses language similar to the DOMA provision declared unconstitutional. The case for Title 38's unconstitutionality was so clear following the Supreme Court ruling that House Republicans announced they would no longer defend the code in court (the Department of Justice stopped defending it in 2012). On Friday, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall ruled that Title 38 was indeed unconstitutional and ordered the department to distribute benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The Department of Veterans' Affairs has been in something of a bind over the DOMA decision: while the laws governing their spousal benefits are more or less being abandoned by their earlier defenders, they're still laws. The Department of Justice decision gives the department one more reason not to wait for Congress to erase the spousal limitation from the code before starting spousal veterans' benefits.
Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday, announcing the decision. Noting that decisions not to enforce federal law by the department "are appropriately rare," Holder argued that in this case it was warranted because continued enforcement "would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits."
Read the full letter below:
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