Neither side budging on Guard benefits
By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: November 2, 2013
Gov. Rick Perry stood his ground Friday in a showdown with the Pentagon over processing benefits for same-sex couples at National Guard offices, possibly setting the stage for yet another court battle with the federal government.
A spokesman for the governor insisted that the Texas National Guard would not process marriage certificates for same-sex couples, despite an order this week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to do so.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, met Friday via teleconference with the leaders of eight state Guard organizations that have refused to process paperwork for same-sex benefits. Officials in Texas and Washington weren't disclosing their next moves, but neither side appeared to budge.
“I guess I couldn't be surprised that someone from the Obama administration is trying to force their will onto the states and bypass the state's constitutional authority to govern itself,” Perry spokesman Josh Havens said, adding the governor had “every intent to uphold the Texas Constitution and state law.”
Asked if Texas would go to court, he replied, “I think we have a pretty good track record of defending our state laws.”
The prospect of a court clash involving Texas, which has battled over redistricting, abortion and its new voter ID law, grew larger after Hagel said Thursday night he would ensure that all 54 Guard organizations complied with an Aug. 14 Pentagon edict to begin offering same-sex married couples the same benefits as other married troops.
He told the Anti-Defamation League that the recalcitrant states “will be expected to comply with both lawful direction and (Pentagon) policy.”
So far, Guard organizations in 46 states and jurisdictions, including Puerto Rico, process the documentation. States refusing to comply are Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia and Texas, the Guard Bureau said.
Texas cited its state constitution and Family Code in refusing, and it has referred same-sex couples to active-duty installations around the state. So far, fewer than 100 same-sex couples nationwide have sought to obtain IDs for benefits, with the number in Texas under five, according to Guard officials.
Texas defines marriage as between a man and a woman. But the Defense Department this summer said it would issue benefits to same-sex spouses of military members as well as civilian workers after the Supreme Court ruled that part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
The Texas Guard's adjutant general, Air Force Maj. Gen. John Nichols, was among leaders from the eight states to talk with Grass. But Army Lt. Col. Joanne MacGregor, a spokeswoman for the Texas Guard, said she did not know the outcome of their conference.
She stressed that no one in the 22,000-strong organization had been denied benefits. However, Guard personnel on five state-operated facilities are barred from uploading a copy of the same-sex marriage certificate into a computer database, a key step required for issuing such military benefits as health care or housing allowances. The Texas Family Code forbids the acceptance of same-sex marriage certificates on state facilities.
MacGregor said the Guard was awaiting an opinion on the matter from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, but it isn't known when it would be released.
Just how Grass and state adjutant generals would solve the quandary wasn't clear, but the Arlington, Va.-based Guard Bureau issued a statement after the conference saying Grass would “employ all means available to ensure that the National Guard is 100 percent compliant” with the policy.
“Soldiers, airmen, and their family members who serve their nation deserve the full complement of benefits they have earned through their service and sacrifice. Nothing less is acceptable,” the Guard Bureau statement added.
Hagel said the Guard organizations refusing to facilitate same-sex couples' efforts to obtain benefits had “created hardship and inequality” by forcing them to travel long distances to federal military bases to submit paperwork.
“It causes division among the ranks, and it furthers prejudice, which (the Defense Department) has fought to extinguish,” he said.
MacGregor, the Texas Guard spokeswoman, said the adjutant general wants all soldiers to be treated fairly.
“I can tell you (Nichols) believes that he wants to take care of all his soldiers, of all flavors, types, and so his goal is provide them with the benefits but not do anything illegal,” she said. “He cannot break the law, and that's what this boils down to.”