04/02/2012

Southern Poverty Law Center Condemns House Republicans’ Intervention in Disabled Veteran’s Case

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today condemned efforts by House Republicans to prevent a decorated 12-year U.S. Army veteran and other married gay and lesbian veterans from receiving the same disability benefits provided to their married heterosexual counterparts.

 

In an effort to deny these veterans their benefits, the group of legislators, who are part of the so-called Bipartisan Legal Advocacy Group (BLAG), moved to intervene today in the case filed in February by the SPLC on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris and her wife, Maggie. The couple has been denied dependency benefits available to married veterans because the federal government will not recognize marriages by same-sex couples.

“This shameful crusade by Rep. John Boehner and his colleagues against our brave men and women in uniform is nothing short of disgusting,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “These lawmakers are actually spending our taxpayer dollars in this fight against those who put their lives on the line in defense of our country. It’s really remarkable the lengths they will go to discriminate.”

In a letter to Boehner, the Democratic members of BLAG denounced the motion to intervene, which will be filed today in federal court in Los Angeles, as a new and direct assault against our nation’s veterans.

Although the group is a bipartisan panel, House Democrats have refused to support any legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and have repeatedly called for a briefing on the expenditures by the group. Last October, Boehner tripled the estimate that the DOMA defense will cost taxpayers to $1.5 million, which will be paid to a Washington, D.C., law firm.

The letter from Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer also notes that the Republicans’ efforts to intervene in the case exceed the scope of the original BLAG authorization to defend DOMA. The March 2011 motion by GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor that authorized the group’s intervention in these issues was limited to defending “section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act” and no other federal statute. Pelosi and Hoyer have requested a formal vote of the BLAG on extending the defense of discrimination to veterans and their families.

“I am very disappointed that lawmakers claim to support veterans, but are preventing families like me and Maggie from getting the benefits we need to survive,” Tracey said. “I dedicated 12 years of my life to defending the country I love. It’s frustrating that these lawmakers would rather use taxpayer dollars to defend discrimination instead of providing my family the benefits I earned as a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We live paycheck to paycheck and those benefits could go a long way toward easing some of the financial pressure we face.”

The House Speaker convened BLAG in 2011 in response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision not to defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Section 3 prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples, even if the marriage is fully recognized by state law.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice also announced that it would not defend the definition of marriage under Title 38, the federal statute that relates to military benefits, because it has determined that the law is unconstitutional. Despite BLAG’s efforts, two federal courts have blocked Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional.

The lawsuit filed by the SPLC and the law firm of WilmerHale in February charges that the Department of Veterans Affairs discriminated against Tracey and her wife by denying them disabled veteran benefits available to other married veterans and their spouses, even though their marriage is legally recognized in California, the state where they live.

The VA denied the benefits because Title 38 defines “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex.” Even if the department changes its definition of “spouse,” DOMA defines marriage for all federal purposes as between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

In 2010, Tracey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), which the VA has determined is connected to her military service. There is no known cure for MS, a disabling disease that attacks the brain and central nervous system. Tracey applied for additional disability compensation as a married veteran to help ensure that Maggie has some financial stability.

The couple, a working-class family, 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. Any additional income or benefit from Tracey’s years of military service would offset some of the economic strain resulting from Tracey’s medical condition. This includes the cost of medicine, therapy and time the couple has to miss from work to attend Tracey’s doctors’ appointments.