Rights group pushes for same-sex military benefits
Published: August 11, 2011
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials have maintained that even after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is repealed, they’ll have limited flexibility to offer benefits to same-sex military partners because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. But at least one group believes that military officials can do more.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday, officials from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network argue that while the DOMA prohibits federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages, the military does have “the ability, within the confines of that law, to make same-sex married couples and their families eligible to take part in some of the same programs that are available to straight married couples and their families.”
That includes allowing those couples to get military family housing, joint duty assignments, access to commissaries and even military ID cards.
At issue are federally mandated military rules versus the Defense Department’s own regulations. For example, legal experts at SLDN argue that married housing benefits can’t be extended to same-sex couples (because that payout is outlined in federal law), but determining who is eligible to live in military family housing (governed by department regulations) could include those couples without running afoul of DOMA.
Military officials have said that gay servicemembers with children can live on base with their same-sex partner if that partner is the designated caregiver, since military regulations allow that caregiver to be someone besides a spouse (a sister or grandparent, for example).
SLDN officials say that military planners can insert the same flexibility in other benefits, writing the regulations broadly enough that same-sex partners could be eligible once commanders see the benefit of protecting those families.
Of course, conservatives on Capitol Hill are likely to block attempts to broaden those benefit rules. Earlier this year, House Republicans attached amendments to the annual defense budget bills aimed at strengthening DOMA in terms of military rules and regulations. That measure has not been signed into law.
In the letter to Panetta, SLDN officials say the issue is matter of basic fairness to gay troops, who will be able to serve openly for the first time starting Sept. 20.
“Department officials, both civilian and military, have repeatedly said that gay and lesbian service members will be treated with respect and dignity and that nothing will stand in the way of their advancing as far as their skills and talents will take them,” the letter states. “We applaud these sentiments. What we would like to see is the Department formalize these commitments by including them in Departmental policies and practices.”