SPLC asks court to block House GOP attempt to delay disabled veteran’s case

Tracey Cooper-Harris (right) with her spouse Maggie.

Tracey Cooper-Harris (right) with her spouse Maggie.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Monday asked a federal court to block efforts by U.S. House Republicans to further delay a decorated 12-year U.S. Army veteran in a legal same-sex marriage from seeking the same benefits provided to other married veterans and their spouses.

The court recently allowed the Bipartisan Legal Advocacy Group (BLAG) to intervene in the case, which was filed by the SPLC in February on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris and her wife Maggie.

Tracey Cooper-Harris (right) with her spouse Maggie.

BLAG has asked the court to delay the case and to refuse the couple resolution of their claims. The couple has been denied dependency benefits available to married veterans because the federal government will not recognize marriages by same-sex couples.

“It is appalling and reprehensible the lengths that some members of Congress will go to deny these veterans their hard-earned benefits,” said Christine Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC.

“Federal courts have already blocked this law because it is unconstitutional. Yet, House Republicans continue their efforts to deny gay and lesbian veterans equal rights while these veterans and their families struggle financially – living without the benefits they have earned.”

In 2011, House Speaker Representative John Boehner convened BLAG in response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision not to defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), because it determined that the law is unconstitutional.

Section 3 of DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples, even if the marriage is recognized by state law.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice announced that it also would not defend the definition of marriage under Title 38, the federal statute that relates to veterans benefits. Despite BLAG’s efforts, four federal courts have recently blocked Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional.

“I am very discouraged that lawmakers are compelled to force families like Maggie and me to live without the benefits I earned during my service to this country,” said Tracey Cooper-Harris. “It is frustrating for Maggie and me that BLAG now also wants to deny us our day in court. Forcing veterans – or any American – to suffer discrimination in silence is not representative of the America I fought to defend and protect.”

In 2010, Cooper-Harris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which the VA has determined is connected to her military service.

Cooper-Harris applied for additional disability compensation as a married veteran to help ensure that her spouse has financial stability when Tracey’s disease makes it difficult for her to care for herself. The additional benefits are routinely received by heterosexual married veterans, and are only being denied to Tracey and Maggie because they are both women.

The lawsuit filed by the SPLC in February charges that the Department of Veterans Affairs is discriminating against Tracey and her wife by denying them benefits available to other married veterans and their spouses, even though their marriage is legally recognized in California, the state where they live.

The VA denied the benefits because Title 38 defines “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex.” Even if the department changes its definition of “spouse,” DOMA defines marriage for all federal purposes as between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

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