Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Monday announced he will extend to nearly the full extent permitted under current law the benefits available to gay and lesbian service members and their families.
Though Panetta’s announcement did not include a number of important items that could have been granted — including burial rights at national cemeteries and some overseas travel for spouses, which remain under consideration — advocates called the package “substantive” and acknowledged that the Pentagon has done almost as much as it can with the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) still on the books.
In his memo to the military services, Panetta detailed a number of benefits that will be extended to same-sex partners, including identification cards that will provide access to commissaries and other services.
But Pentagon officials said that while some housing payments and health care benefits can’t be included because of federal law, some access to base housing is not specifically prohibited and could be offered in the future.
Panetta said that housing, burials – such as those at Arlington National Cemetery – and some benefits related to overseas deployments “present complex legal and policy challenges” but will remain under review.
According to a senior legal official, the department cannot extend any benefits that, by law, are limited to “spouse” because of the DOMA restrictions.
“One of the legal limitations to providing all benefits at this time is the Defense of Marriage Act, which is still the law of the land. There are certain benefits that can only be provided to spouses as defined by that law, which is now being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.” Panetta said, in a statement.
“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. Until then, the department will continue to comply with current law while doing all we can to take care of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and their families.”
“Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation’s journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families,” said Allyson Robinson, Executive Directory of OutServe-SLDN, an national advocacy group for LGBT service members and veterans.
“We thank him for getting us a few steps closer to full equality — steps that will substantively improve the quality of life of gay and lesbian military families,” said Robinson.A senior Pentagon official said the rough estimate of same-sex couples affected by the new benefits is about 18,000 — 5,600 active duty, 3,400 National Guard and Reserve and 8,000 retirees.
A number of lawmakers praised the Pentagon’s move, but also called for full equality, saying Congress should repeal DOMA.
“Today, the Pentagon took a historic step forward toward righting the wrong of inequality in our armed forces, but there is still more work to be done,” said Chad Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign.
“Gay and lesbian service members and their families make sacrifices every day, and this country owes them every measure of support we can provide. Since the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ the Obama administration has shown true leadership on this issue. But even today, the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act makes inequality for gay and lesbian military families a legal requirement,” said Griffin.
Panetta’s decision comes as he nears the end of his tenure as Pentagon chief and on the heels of President Barack Obama’s broad call for equal rights for gays during his inaugural speech.
The Supreme Court is set to consider DOMA next month, and is expected to issue a ruling later this year.