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Federal judge: Veterans Affairs can’t deny benefits to same-sex couples

Friday, August 30, 2013

LOS ANGELES — A judge in Los Angeles ruled Thursday that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits given the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said that a federal code defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex is unconstitutional “under rational basis scrutiny” since the high court’s decision allowing legally married gay couples the right to health care benefits.

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

“The court finds that the exclusion of spouses in same-sex marriages from veterans’ benefits is not rationally related to the goal of gender equality,” in the code, Marshall wrote in her four-page ruling.

The Department of Veterans Affairs denied an application from veteran Tracey Cooper-Harris and her spouse seeking additional money and benefits that married veterans are entitled to receive. Cooper-Harris suffers from multiple sclerosis and receiv es disability benefits.

She and Maggie Cooper-Harris got married in California during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex unions were legal in the state. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had said previously the couple would receive about $150 more a month in disability payments, and Maggie Cooper-Harris would be eligible for about $1,200 a month in survivor’s benefits if her wife died.

The Justice Department had asked for Cooper-Harris’ case to be tossed out on the grounds that veterans’ claims can only be heard by an administrative Board of Veterans’ Appeals. But Marshall said the case could move forward.

The law on VA benefits specifically defines spouse and surviving spouse as someone of the opposite sex, which has prevented same-sex married couples from accessing such benefits as enhanced disability or pension payments.

In a letter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. earlier this month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said no court had deemed the provision unconstitutional, nor has Congress taken up a bill to change the definition of spouse. He noted, however, that if spousal definitions were determined to be unconstitutional, the agency would be prepared to update its policies.

The Defense Department has said that same-sex spouses of military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3.

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11 more reader comments:

  1. Something the lawyers among us need to keep driving home is the fact that the Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of DOMA didn´t remove DOMA from the lawbooks – not even the part that was struck down.

    We often (wrongly) believe that Supreme Court rulings actually change the law; they don´t, they merely render them legally unenforceable. As long as the laws remain on the books though, some overzealous public servant can always point to them as an excuse to test them, doing exactly what the Supreme Court said they could not do in hopes that a different court will rule differently.

    The multiple arrests of gay men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana earlier this summer for consenting to have sex in their homes – not in public – with undercover sheriff´s deputies – TEN YEARS after the Supreme Court said such prosecutions were no longer legal – is a perfect example.

    As long as DOMA remains on the books, we and our relationships are still at risk. We need to keep the pressure on Congress to repeal it, not just trust them not to enforce it.

    Posted on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 3:52pm
  2. A bit more:

    I personally experienced another example of this. The Supreme Court banned teacher-led prayer in public schools in 1963. In 1973 I lived briefly in a small town in Eastern Oklahoma where – each morning – the school´s principal led the entire student body (convened in the school´s auditorium) in reciting the Lord´s Prayer. I was a kid, I didn´t know it was illegal, so I never even mentioned it to my parents. As far as I know this may still be happening in some parts of the US because the state and local laws that mandated such activities are still on the books.

    The state of Mississippi just got around to removing the laws that allowed slavery in that state in February of THIS YEAR. Imagine the lives that could have been ruined if someone in power had decided to test those laws in modern times. Yes, it would be ruled unconstitutional eventually, but the people harmed by the action would remain harmed, their lives turned upside down, their wealth wiped out by attorney´s fees. This is why it matters that we don´t just declare victory and go home when we win in court. We have to continue the fight until every vestige of the offending laws is stricken – by our elected representatives, not just the courts – from the law books.

    Posted on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 4:11pm
  3. wonderful . :)

    Posted on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 4:16pm
  4. Always knew it had more to do with money. Govt can´t ignore now and has to pay.

    Posted on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 7:21pm
  5. Well HOT DAMN!!!

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 12:12am
  6. Yes!!! Awesomeness right here! :D

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 5:28am
  7. Great!

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 5:35am
  8. Wonderful news – stand back and watch the domino effect – now that a legal precedent has been set, those who oppose everybody´s human rights will be fighting a loosing battle – human rights mean rights for EVERY human<3

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 5:44am
  9. I was under the impression that prejudice against gays were declining. this same story is on MSN news and I have never seen so much hate. however, they have suck it up because this women is getting equal rights and that is awesome!!

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 6:07am
  10. Awesome!

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 8:23am
  11. Of course they should!

    Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 11:19am