Same-sex married couples will no longer be denied veteran’s benefits, attorney general Eric Holder said Wednesday, despite a provision of federal law that defines spouses as being off the opposite sex.
“Decisions by the Executive not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare. Nevertheless,” Holder wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, “the unique circumstances presented here warrant non-enforcement.”
Although the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on recognition of same-sex marriages, a provision of law governing veteran’s benefits that excluded same sex spouses, known as Title 38, remained in force. The head of the Veteran’s Affairs department, Eric Shinseki, maintained that same-sex spouses would have to be denied benefits in order to comply with the law. But last week, a federal court ruled that an injured Iraq war veteran and her wife could not be denied medical benefits simply because they are of the same sex.
House Republicans had chosen to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and Title 38 in court. After the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, the House GOP decided not to defend Title 38. In his letter, Holder writes that because of the two recent rulings, and the House’s decision to withdraw from the legal battle over Title 38, there was no longer any reason to keep enforcing a law that is not “rationally related to any military interest.” Furthermore, Holder wrote, “continued enforcement would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits.”
The decision means that veterans will no longer be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, an outcome that has significant financial benefits for military families headed by same-sex couples. But there are also benefits that can’t be qualified in financial terms. For veterans in same-sex marriages, denial of federal recognition meant that they could not be buried in a military cemetery alongside their loved one. When the time comes, they will now be able to spend eternity at rest together.