In the Obama administration’s latest step to ensure equal treatment for same-sex married couples following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday that President Obama has directed the Executive Branch to take steps allowing for same-sex spouses of military veterans to collect federal benefits.
The new policy means that the administration will no longer enforce statutory language governing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) that restricts the awarding of spousal benefits to opposite-sex marriages only. The language, contained within Title 38 of the U.S. Code, has, until now, prevented the Executive Branch from providing spousal benefits to veterans—and in some instances active-duty service members and reservists—who are in same-sex marriages recognized under state law.
In a letter to Congressional leaders, Holder stated that the President’s decision was consistent with the Court’s decision in Windsor in June.
“Although the Supreme Court did not directly address the constitutionality of the Title 38 provisions in Windsor, the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment,” Holder wrote.
The decision not to enforce Title 38 aligns with the Obama administration’s determination last year that two provisions of Title 38 that govern benefits for veterans and their families were unconstitutional as applied to legally married same-sex couples. At that time, the Attorney General informed Congress that the Department would no longer defend the Title 38 provisions, but that the Executive Branch would continue to enforce them. Today’s announcement makes clear that enforcement of the provision in Title 38 defining marriage as between a man and a woman will now cease.
The announcement comes after the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) recently decided to stop defending the Title 38 provisions in pending cases. In addition, last week, a federal district court in California held the Title 38 provisions unconstitutional on equal protection grounds. After consideration of these developments and a recommendation by the Attorney General, the President directed the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of the Title 38 provisions.
A copy of the letter from the Attorney General to Congressional leaders is attached.