Sens. Push Equality Measure for LGBT Military Families

February 21, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon wade into the debate over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, when it hears oral argument next month in two cases with potentially significant implications for marriage equality. (Hollingsworth v. Perry focuses on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which yanked marriage rights from lesbians and gay men, and in Windsor v. U.S. the justices will review an appellate court ruling that invalidated a major provision of DOMA as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.)  

But some congressional lawmakers are not waiting around to hear from the high court. Two senators are advancing equality on another front – for military same-sex spouses, by ensuring LGBT military families receive some of the same benefits that their straight counterparts enjoy. (Yes, as noted here, efforts to advance significant legislation in Congress are almost futile. Conversely liberal lawmakers in Congress cannot or should not cower from a radical anti-government agenda pushed by an increasingly right-wing Republican Party.)

The Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act of 2013 would “require the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to honor any marriage that has been recognized by a state and provide a number of key benefits to the spouses of all servicemembers." The legislation is sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and is named after National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan who died of breast cancer earlier this month. Morgan’s wife, Karen, is not eligible for survivor benefits because the military does not recognize same-sex marriages.

In a press statement about the measure, Sen. Gillibrand said it would be “an important step forward in achieving full equality for all of our men and women serving and fighting for our nation. Same-sex partners of military servicemembers should not be denied essential benefits because of who they are.”

Sen. Shaheen said, “Charlie served on the front lines for our country, but because of her sexual orientation her family is wrongfully being denied many of the same benefits given to those who stood beside her. That is an unacceptable reality and I’m committed to doing all I can to make sure that no spouses, children and families are denied benefits they have earned and rightly deserve.”

 

The two senators note and praise Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent announcement to extend some benefits to lesbian and gay troops, such as joint duty assignments and access to “morale, welfare and recreation programs; sexual assault counseling; legal assistance, child care; and space-available travel on military aircraft,” Chris Johnson reported for the Washington Blade.

Nevertheless because of laws, such as DOMA, there are far too many benefits the military affords to straight couples, while denying them to lesbian and gay families. Gillibrand cites work by Outserve Servicemembers Legal Defense Network that “there are more than 100 benefits granted to service members, veterans and their families contingent on marital status.”

As President Obama put it in his second Inaugural Address, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Though the administration long ago stopped defending DOMA in court, last year Obama, as The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus notes told ABC that while he personally supported marriage equality, he thought the matter should be addressed by the states. So Marcus asks whether the administration will intervene in Hollingsworth to offer it’s thoughts on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, a voter approved initiative that squashed marriage equality in California and if so will the administration represent the far more powerful and broad call for equality that Obama made in his second Inaugural Address?

Regardless, Gillibrand and Shaheen, and the outgoing Secretary of Defense are giving voice and action to advancing equality.

[image via Jason Pier in DC]