Pentagon pushes limits of DOMA, provides some benefits to same-sex couples

Photo by Flickr user gregwest98

Photo by Flickr user gregwest98

By Irene Morse

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has become a sore point for many federal agencies seeking to attract and retain a diverse workforce that includes gay and lesbian employees. The Supreme Court will hear arguments addressing the constitutionality of DOMA later this year, but many institutions have chosen to take initiative independently.

One such federal mainstay is the Department of Defense, soon to transition from the leadership of Leon Panetta to his successor, likely former Sen. Chuck Hagel.

Panetta announced Monday a slough of new benefits for same-sex domestic partners, including commissary privileges, family center programs, dependent ID cards, joint duty assignments and space-available travel on military aircraft. This announcement comes more than a year after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And in that time, gay and lesbian members of the military have been serving openly without receiving equal benefits.

What prevented the Pentagon from extending benefits before? Aside from the bureaucratic hurdles inherent to changes in military policy, there was the legal question of DOMA. Because DOMA prevents federal recognition of same-sex couples, it complicates any federal agencies’ attempts to equalize benefits. Some agencies have pushed for equality by providing same-sex spouses of federal employees with “soft” benefits, such as gym memberships. Others, such as the Department of Defense, have worked to change internal administrative policies and definitions to be more inclusive of same-sex couples.

But several key areas of inequality went unrectified. These include military family housing, burial rights at national cemeteries and spousal privilege in military court for same-sex couples. DOMA also makes it illegal to provide some benefits extended to most military families, such as health care. The complications created by DOMA prompted Panetta to address the law, saying:

“While it will not change during my tenure as Secretary of Defense, I foresee a time when the law will allow the department to grant full benefits to service members and their dependents, irrespective of sexual orientation.”

Legacy concerns are omnipresent as leaders such as Panetta prepare to leave their positions with the start of President Obama’s second term. Extending benefits to same-sex couples may well be a noncontroversial way for Panetta to enact substantive change in the military before making his exit. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but if anything, actions such as this simply highlight the increasing irrelevance of DOMA. The repeal of DOMA would allow the military, and other federal agencies, to provide equal benefits to every couple, without having to hunt for legal loopholes.

Several studies have indicated that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a positive change for the military. Now gay and lesbian members of the military can serve openly, and no later than October 1 they will begin to receive some benefits that their fellow heterosexual soldiers receive. But while DOMA remains in effect, their sacrifice to the country will not be repaid in full.

In the eyes of those who desire a strong and competitive military, this cannot be acceptable for long.

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Posted by on February 12, 2013. Filed under LGBT,Recent News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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