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DOMA ruling to have profound effects on military benefits

Demonstrators gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, March 27, 2013, as the court hears arguments on a part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prevents legally wed same-sex couples from receiving certain benefits by defining marriage as between a man and woman.

WASHINGTON — Casey McLaughlin and her wife don’t have to hide their relationship anymore, but they still feel like the military is discriminating against them for being gay.

“I still can’t get military health care even though we’re married. If she went overseas, I couldn’t accompany her,” said McLaughlin, who has a son and daughter with spouse Shannon, a Massachusetts National Guard soldier. “When people hear that a servicemember can still be discriminated against like this, it really is an atrocity.”

Gay rights advocates assembled a small army of military and veterans spouses this week to speak out against the Defense of Marriage Act ahead of the Supreme Court’s deliberations into the constitutionality of the law.

The case before the court has no direct military ties, but it still has deep implications for the services.

The military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" law, which barred openly gay troops from serving, was repealed 18 months ago. But a host of military benefits — including health care, housing stipends and base access issues — are routinely refused to same-sex couples because of the DOMA, which bars the federal government from officially recognizing those unions.

Access to veterans benefits and burial in veterans cemeteries is also limited.

Opponents of the law call it an issue of fairness and morale, arguing that the law creates different standards for gay and straight troops.

Conservative groups within the services argue the opposite, saying the act is needed to protect religious freedom and ensure their views aren’t discriminated against. Officials at the Family Research Council have belittled the push for same-sex military benefits an attempt by advocates to use the services to change social norms.

In a brief before the court, members of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty argued that overturning DOMA would force their members to offer support services and benefits assistance to individuals whose lifestyle violates some chaplains’ moral and ethical codes.

“If this Court strikes down DOMA … that will not only sweep aside the carefully calibrated efforts to balance religious liberty with competing interests, it will also intrude into the lives and lived convictions of our nation’s religious servicemembers,” they wrote.

Defense Department officials last month did extend some existing marriage benefits to same-sex couples, allowing them to receive military ID cards, visit loved ones in military hospitals and access base commissaries.

But officials at the gay rights group OutServe-SLDN said those changes are just partial fixes. The defense and veterans affairs departments won’t be able to fully recognize same-sex spouses until DOMA is repealed.

McLaughlin has been a vocal advocate on the issue since signing onto a lawsuit in October 2011 to overturn the military’s same-sex benefits limits. She said the Supreme Court case represents a huge step forward in public awareness of the law.

“And I’m cautiously optimistic that this issue will be settled soon, that DOMA will be ruled unconstitutional,” she said. “Overturning don’t ask, don’t tell was a huge win, but we’re still not equal.”

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane
 

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