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SPLC Lawsuit Challenges Defense of Marriage Act, VA for Refusing to Recognize Legally Married Same-Sex Couples

Tracey Cooper-Harris served for 12 years in the U.S. Army and received multiple commendations. But because she’s in a marriage with a person of the same sex, the government refuses to grant her the same disability benefits as heterosexual veterans.

In a federal lawsuit filed today, the SPLC challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as well as the law that governs the Department of Veterans Affairs policy.

“The government’s refusal to grant these benefits is a slap in the face to the gay and lesbian service members who put their lives on the line to protect our nation and our freedoms,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Especially given the recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it’s shocking that the federal government continues to demean Tracey’s years of service and the service of many others in this way.”

While in the Army, Tracey reached the rank of sergeant and served  in Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She received more than two dozen medals and commendations and was honorably discharged in 2003.

Five years later, she married her partner, Maggie, in Van Nuys, Calif. In 2010, she 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 received disability benefits, but the VA denied her application for additional compensation to which married veterans are entitled – benefits meant to help ensure financial stability for  spouses – even though her marriage is legally recognized in California. The denial also means the couple will not be permitted to be buried together in a national veteran’s cemetery.

Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris
Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris in their California home. Tracey and Maggie are legally married, but the VA denied her application for additional compensation to which other married veterans are entitled.

The VA’s decision was based on its definition of a spouse, spelled out in federal law, as “a person of the opposite sex who is a wife or a husband.” Even if the department were to change its definition of spouse, DOMA 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.”

“I dedicated 12 years of my life to serving the country I love,” Tracey said. “I’m asking only for the same benefits the brave men and women who served beside me enjoy. By refusing to recognize our marriage, the federal government has deprived Maggie and me of the peace of mind that such benefits are meant to provide to veterans and their families.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, charges that DOMA is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. It also challenges the VA’s definition of “spouse” as discriminatory.

Tracey Cooper-Harris in uniform
Tracey Cooper-Harris served for 12 years in the U.S. Army and received multiple commendations.

The lawsuit is not the first time the SPLC has fought for equal benefits for military personnel. In the early 1970s, the SPLC challenged the military’s refusal to grant equal benefits to married servicewomen. Joseph Levin, SPLC’s co-founder, argued the case, Frontiero v. Richardson, before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. The Court held that the military must provide married women in the armed forces with the same benefits as married men. It was the first successful sex discrimination lawsuit against the federal government.

“More than four decades ago, we fought on behalf of female service members when the military refused to provide them the same benefits as male service members,” Levin said. “Sadly, we are once again forced to fight for the equal treatment of service members and their families. All service members and their families make the same commitment and sacrifices for their country. They all should receive the same benefits.”

Other attorneys on the case include Caren Short of the SPLC and Matthew Benedetto, Daniel Noble and Eugene Marder of WilmerHale.