Tracey Cooper-Harris is a married 12-year Army veteran who is rated at 80%, but she is only being paid as a single veteran. The VA has denied paying the California resident the additional $124/mo. spousal amount because although she is legally married in California, she is married to another woman.
The VA has maintained that Title 38 of the federal code still defines spouse as “a person of the opposite sex.” Although the Supreme Court’s June decision in Windsor v U.S. declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, the VA said the ruling did not apply to it and they would continue to define spouse as is until a statute specifically overturned it. On August 29th, US District Judge Consuelo Marshall of Los Angeles ruled that the VA could no longer maintain its stance, and must provide VA benefits for a same sex spouse.
The Supreme Court in Windsor found DOMA unconstitutional “under rational basis scrutiny.” If a classification drawn by a statute is rationally related to legitimate state interest, the statute will be upheld. In the California court it was argued that Title 38 was enacted in part to promote gender equality and expand the availability of veterans’ benefits. Judge Marshall found that the exclusion of spouses in same-sex marriages for veterans’ benefits is not rationally related to the goal of gender equality.
Experts on behalf of Ms. Cooper-Harris declared that veterans’ benefits are essential to ensuring that service members perform to their maximum potential and other justifications include cohesion, readiness, recruiting and retention. There is no rational relation between denying benefits to a same-sex spouse and these military purposes. Finally, and seemingly most damning, Judge Marshall found that “Title 38 is not rationally related to the military’s commitment to caring for and providing for veteran families.”
Do All LGBT Veterans Qualify for VA Benefits for a Same Sex Spouse?
This ruling does not mean that all same-sex spouses will immediately be paid full veterans benefits. This is one court in one California district. It is important to remember that the state of California legally recognizes same-sex marriages. Not all states do. The VA will likely for now continue to adhere to its definition of a spouse in states it can until a statute specifically overturns it. But as Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, said: “This decision sets our nation on a path to honoring and serving all of our veterans and their families, regardless of their sexual orientation.”