02/20/2013

SPLC asks federal court to block section of Defense of Marriage Act

The SPLC asked a federal court today to block a section of the Defense of Marriage Act that bars the federal government from providing veterans’ benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

In a motion for summary judgment, the SPLC urged the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to declare as unconstitutional Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and two other statutes that prohibit the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. 

Because of these statutes, same-sex couples are ineligible to receive certain disability compensation and other veterans’ benefits routinely provided to veterans in opposite-sex marriages and their spouses.

The SPLC is representing Tracey Cooper-Harris, a disabled U.S. Army veteran, and her wife, Maggie, who were married in California in November 2008.

 

“Tracey served with honor in two wars to protect our collective freedom,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Nothing should stand in the way of our brave men and women of the military receiving all the benefits they have earned with their sacrifice.”

In 2010, Tracey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has determined is 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.

Tracey asked the VA to add Maggie as her spouse in an effort to receive benefits provided to married veterans, such as additional disability compensation and monthly compensation for spouses of veterans who have died from a service-connected disease or disability. The couple also hoped to be eligible for the benefit of joint burial at a state or national veterans’ cemetery.

Though their marriage is legally recognized by their home state of California, Tracey and Maggie have been denied these benefits because they are a same-sex couple and Title 38 prevents the VA from recognizing their marriage.

Even if Congress were to change the definition of spouse under Title 38, the Defense of Marriage Act would prevent the VA from approving the benefits because it defines marriage for all federal purposes as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

The couple, a typical 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. The additional benefits earned through Tracey’s years of military service would offset some of the economic strain resulting from Tracey’s medical condition. It also would enable the couple to pay for measures Tracey’s doctor has recommended to slow the progression of her disease.

“While I shouldn’t have to fight for something that was already promised to me in exchange for my service and commitment to this country, I want to make sure that Maggie is taken care of after I am gone,” Tracey said. “I also want to ensure that no other couple like us has to endure this discrimination.”

The WilmerHale law firm is serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel on the case.