Department of Justice Will No Longer Deny Spousal Benefits to Married Gay Couples

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The Department of Justice on Friday said it will no longer defend a federal statute that denies spousal benefits to veterans in legal same-sex marriages, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The announcement was made by Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter to Congress.

The statute they are referring to, Title 38 of the United States Code, defines “spouse” as a person of the opposite sex and therefore precludes the Department of Veterans Affairs from recognizing the legal marriages of same-sex couples

“We are pleased the Department of Justice has recognized that there is no justification for this statute, which treats gay and lesbian veterans and their families as second-class citizens,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “This is welcome news for veterans who simply want equal treatment under the law.”

Keep reading after the jump…

Earlier this month, the SPLC and co-counsel WilmerHale filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, an Army veteran who served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and her wife Maggie Cooper-Harris, challenging the legality of Title 38 as well as Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which the Department of Justice has also declined to defend.

In the letter released today, Holder outlined the reasons for department’s decision to no longer defend Title 38.

“The legislative record of these provisions contains no rationale for providing veterans’ benefits to opposite-sex couples of veterans but not to legally married same-sex spouses of veterans,” the letter stated. “Neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Veterans Affairs identified any justifications for that distinction that would warrant treating these provisions differently from Section 3 of DOMA.”

The federal lawsuit on behalf of Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris, filed Feb. 2 in the Central District of California, will proceed. While the letter states that the Department of Justice will not defend Title 38, Congress could nonetheless seek to intervene to defend the statute as well as Section 3 of DOMA. Other attorneys on the case include Caren Short of the SPLC and Matthew Benedetto, Daniel Noble and Eugene Marder of WilmerHale.

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