Proposed bill would make full benefits to same sex military spouses a federal law
Two Democratic congressmen have co-sponsored H.R. 683, the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act (MSET) of 2013, a bill that enshrine into law recent changes in Defense Department policy toward same sex spouses of service members. Bill author Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and co-sponsor Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) introduced the legislation on Thursday, which would include the benefits named under Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta’s policy, announced Monday, and additional benefits not included under current policy.
In an interview with Raw Story, Smith said that authoring the bill is a matter of bringing federal government policy in line with progress that has been made on the state level.
“Several states including mine, Washington,” he said, “allow for same sex marriage. You have the increasing instance of ‘Okay, we are now going to have the LGBT community serving openly within the military, how do we make sure we protect their benefits?'”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “throughout U.S. code, even with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repealed, there’s a ton of discrimination in there. Basically, it’s a legal problem to go back in there and fix it to make sure that now that LGBT folks are able to openly serve, we can make sure they get the benefits that they should.”
Secretary Panetta’s regulatory changes do not include medical and dental care, dependent-rate housing allowances, survivor benefits, cost of living allowances, and protection under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. All of these benefits are included in the MSET Act.
Additionally, current Pentagon policy runs afoul of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law enacted in 1996 that confines the legal and financial benefits of marriage to heterosexual couples only. Under DOMA, no state or U.S. political body is required to recognize same sex marriages from other states.
Under the MSET, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs would be able to recognize marriages as defined by a state and confer benefits to the same sex partners of soldiers and veterans accordingly.
“If my bill becomes law,” said Smith, “it’s statute against statute and basically most lawyers would rule that the most recent statute takes precedence. So for the purposes of the Department of Defense and the VA, this statute that allows for equal treatment of same sex partners would be enforced.”
Smith said that when trying to persuade other House members on this issue, he explains that it is an issue of fairness and intellectual consistency, that the MSET is only the logical conclusion of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“The argument that I try to make with my Republican colleagues is that same sex marriage is legal in a whole bunch of states. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ has been repealed, regardless of how you feel about it,” he said. “It counter-serves the military’s functioning properly to have discrimination within the ranks.”
If ratified into law, the bill would change the relevant sections of United States code to read, “an individual shall be considered a ‘spouse’ if the marriage of the individual is valid in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside any State, if the marriage is valid in the place in which the marriage was entered into and the marriage could have been entered into in a State.”
“Outside any state” in the statute is defined as any U.S. territory that is not a state like Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.
It is worth noting, Smith pointed out, that if and when DOMA is ultimately repealed, this same change in federal code will have to made across multiple agencies.
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced a companion bill in the Senate on Friday, the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act of 2013. Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan appeared on NBC in September of 2011, “coming out” on the air to celebrate the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Morgan died of breast cancer on February 10 while still trying to secure benefits for her wife Karen and their five-year-old daughter Casey Elena.