05/17/2013

Federal court considers constitutionality of Defense of Marriage Act in SPLC case

Tracy Cooper Harris and her wife Maggie

A federal court in California today heard arguments from SPLC attorneys challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Title 38 – statutes that prevent the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from granting equal benefits to gay and lesbian veterans and their spouses.

The case, Tracey Cooper-Harris v. USA, is the only challenge to DOMA that is proceeding at the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court considers the statute’s constitutionality.

It will be the first case to decide whether married gay and lesbian veterans and their spouses should receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. The judge did not issue a ruling at today’s hearing.

The SPLC and the law firm WilmerHale argued on behalf of disabled U.S. Army veteran Tracey Cooper-Harris and her wife, Maggie. Attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall of the Central District of California to block portions of DOMA and Title 38, which both define “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a man or a woman. ” Title 38 specifically governs veterans benefits.

“Today we asked the court to declare these laws unconstitutional so that the federal government can honor Tracey’s service and Maggie’s sacrifice by providing them the same benefits other married veterans and their spouses routinely receive,” said Caren Short, staff attorney for the SPLC. “Our nation has a proud history of honoring service members and their families for their sacrifices. All who have served honorably must be treated fairly by our government when their service is complete.” 



Tracey, a veteran of both Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010. The VA determined the condition to be connected to her military service. There is no known cure for multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease that attacks the brain and central nervous system. Tracey also receives disability compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from her service. 

But the couple, whose marriage is legally recognized by their home state of California, is ineligible for a number of benefits as a result of these statutes, including additional disability compensation and the right to be buried together in a state or national veterans’ cemetery. These benefits, and many others, are routinely provided to heterosexual married veterans and their spouses.

The couple is on a limited budget. Maggie is an apprentice at an electricians union, and Tracey is a graduate student who only recently got a job with the local VA. The additional benefits earned through Tracey’s years of military service would offset some of the economic strain resulting from her medical condition. It also would enable the couple to pay for measures Tracey’s doctor has recommended to slow the progression of her multiple sclerosis.

“Maggie and I have waited long enough to receive the same benefits other married veterans and their spouses receive,” Tracey said. “We hope the court immediately ends the federal government’s discrimination against gay and lesbian service members and their spouses. By refusing to recognize legal same-sex marriages and grant these couples equal benefits, Congress sends a message to gay and lesbian veterans that their service is not worth as much as the service of heterosexual veterans.”

The SPLC and WilmerHale filed suit on behalf of the couple in February 2012.