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Report: Defense Secretary Panetta expected to extend some military benefits to same-sex families

DOMA Repeal DOMA trials Don't Ask Don't Tell

By Scottie Thomaston

The Washington Post is reporting that the Pentagon is set to extend certain benefits to gays and lesbians in the military and their spouses. Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a “marriage” is defined as only between a man and a woman and a “spouse” means only someone of the opposite sex. The law prevents the military from offering certain benefits to same-sex couples. The Department of Defense’s policies related to benefits have been under review since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

LGBT activists and legal experts have argued that certain benefits could be extended even while DOMA is still the law of the land. Recently during Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing to become the new Secretary of Defense. The new benefits will begin to be extended before outgoing Secretary Panetta leaves.

According to the report:

Officials at the Pentagon would not say which new benefits the department has determined it can extend to same-sex couples without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bars the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex unions. Gay rights advocates have called for benefits including housing privileges, access to base recreational facilities and joint duty assignments for couples in the military.

Legal experts say, however, that the Pentagon will be unable to extend more than 100 benefits while the Defense of Marriage Act remains in place.

The new guidelines will be departing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta’s final imprint on the armed forces. They will also come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken under his relatively short tenure: the rescinding of the ban on openly gay service members and the decision to allow women to serve in combat units.

Military officials have struggled with the flurry of equality dilemmas that have emerged since the ban on openly gay service troops was lifted in September 2011, following congressional repeal of the law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Outserve-SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) issued a statement:

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected this week to announce the long-delayed extension of support and benefits for gay and lesbian military families, according to reports. Army Veteran and OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson said today that the organization hopes Panetta will take full advantage of this final opportunity to act before leaving office.

“Secretary Panetta established a strong civil rights record long before taking office at the Pentagon, so his unwillingness to extend support and recognition to gay and lesbian service members and their families where it is clearly within his authority to do so has baffled many of us. We are hopeful that he will not take half-measures here; for him to grant anything less than the full extent of benefits available under current law would be an anticlimactic end to an otherwise exemplary record on civil rights,” said Robinson.

OutServe-SLDN, previously known as Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, has worked with Panetta and his deputies over the two years since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to get them to offer married same-sex couples those benefits that may be conferred even while the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the law. Meanwhile, Panetta’s expected successor, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, has committed to move quickly to extend these benefits if confirmed.

Until DOMA is repealed or struck down by the Supreme Court, the Department of Defense can only extend a portion of the benefits allowed for opposite-sex spouses. The Respect for Marriage Act to repeal DOMA is expected to be reintroduced in Congress. And on March 27, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in United States v. Windsor, challenging Section 3 of DOMA. A decision in the case is expected by late June.

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