The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) clears a pathway for same-sex military couples to receive the same benefits as heterosexual married military couples. In the last several years DOMA has been used by both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to guide decisions on what kind of federal benefits to offer the domestic partners and spouses of gay troops and veterans.
Gay Couples to Receive Benefits
Same-sex partners and spouses of military service members won’t automatically start receiving the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. But the ball is already rolling in that direction and military sources say it will be relatively easy to make the adjustments necessary to extend full benefits—from factoring in the spouse for housing allowance to burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Cost figures for such benefit extensions have not yet been computed.
Secretary of Defense Hagel expressed support for the landmark policy change, as did Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey told reporters during an afternoon joint press conference with Hagel that “the Joint Chiefs have made it clear, we’ll follow the law of the land, and the law of the land just changed.”
Neither Hagel nor Dempsey offered much in the way of specifics, and there is plenty to be sorted out over the months ahead. The Pentagon did announce it is looking at what same-sex married troops will mean for overseas tours to countries that don’t recognize same sex relationships, let alone marriages.
Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon that there is still much research and work to be done to know how the end of DOMA will play out in every area.
“I have read the basic [Supreme Court] opinion. I have not talked to any lawyers about it,” Hagel said. “I’ve got a responsibility to carry out the law of the land, the decisions the Supreme Court made today … obviously we’re going to deal with the Justice Department and all the other executive offices to comply that law of the land, which we’re very pleased to do and will do and do it expeditiously, but beyond that I don’t know.”
While a U.S. Senator Hagel supported the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they were not open about their sexuality. His opposition to repealing the law came back to bite him when gay rights groups initially opposed his nomination to be Secretary of Defense.
Hagel successfully overcame the opposition with a commitment to ensuring gays would be fully welcome in the military.
“Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment,” he said. “All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country and their qualifications to do so. Today’s ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.”
Dempsey defended the Defense Department against the impression, held by some, he said, that the military “will find a way to fight this or fight that” when it comes to gays serving in the military.
“We actually have done what I think is a very credible job of ensuring as much equality as we can possibly provide to the men and women who serve this country in uniform voluntarily,” he said, “and we will do what we can for them within the limits of the law, but we haven’t had time to figure out what is yet.”
So, change is on the way. It would be a stretch to say anyone fully understands the costs and the implications of this new Supreme Court ruling. Expect a scramble as the military bureaucracy scrambles to understand the ruling, establish new policy, compute the associated costs, implement the required changes, and work with states that have laws that run contrary to the Supreme Court ruling.