House Republicans Face Decision On Fighting Gay Veterans’ Spousal Benefits

A federal judge has set a Thursday deadline for parties to tell him why he shouldn’t side with gay service members and veterans and their spouses in an ongoing challenge to benefits statutes. The deadline comes three weeks after the Supreme Court ruling struck down the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — The House Republican leadership faces a Thursday deadline to decide if it will continue to defend laws that limit veterans benefits to opposite-sex couples in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling striking down a similar provision in the Defense of Marriage Act.

“We’re reviewing the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision, and don’t have any announcement to make at this time,” House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, told BuzzFeed on Wednesday when asked if the defense of the veterans’ statutes would continue.

The day after the Supreme Court ruled in Edie Windsor’s challenge to Section 3 of DOMA that the federal definition of marriage that excluded gay couples in DOMA is unconstitutional, Judge Richard Stearns asked the parties in another lawsuit, filed in federal court in Massachusetts and addressing the rights of service members and veterans and their spouses, to give “any reasons why judgment should not enter for plaintiffs in this case.”

The plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case, filed by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Chadbourne & Park, argued in a Wednesday filing in the case that the decision in Windsor’s case controls the outcome in their case and that Stearns should decide in their favor.

In addition to challenging DOMA, the plaintiffs — led by Maj. Shannon McLaughlin, a judge advocate general in Massachusetts Army National Guard, and her wife, Casey — challenge two statutes in Title 38 of the U.S. Code regarding veterans’ benefits that define “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex.”

As with Section 3 of DOMA, which Attorney General Eric Holder announced in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner in February 2011 that the government would no longer be defending in court challenges because the administration had decided the statute is unconstitutional, Holder informed Boehner in February 2012 that the Justice Department would be not be defending the challenged provisions in Title 38.

“The language of the Title 38 provisions is identical in material respects to the language of Section 3 of DOMA: Those provisions, like Section 3, define the term ‘spouse’ (or ‘surviving spouse’) as ‘a person of the opposite sex,’” Holder wrote in the Feb. 17, 2012, letter.

In the Wednesday filing in the Massachusetts case, the plaintiffs argue that Windsor “is plainly dispositive,” noting that “the same logic that required DOMA to be invalidated applies with equal force to the definitional provisions for the term ‘spouse’ and phrase ‘surviving spouse,’ as used in [Title 38].”

Since the February 2011 letter, the House Republican leadership, through its control of the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, defended Section 3 of DOMA. It continued with that defense as to the veterans’ provisions, in the Massachusetts case and in a similar case brought in federal court in California by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris.

Stearns’ request in the Massachusetts case contained a 21-day deadline, which is Thursday. Neither the Justice Department nor BLAG have yet responded to his request.

Update - 1:25 p.m., EST: A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of the two Democrats on BLAG, asked Boehner to stop the defense in a statement to BuzzFeed.

“Now that the Supreme Court has spoken, it’s time for Speaker Boehner to stop spending scarce taxpayer dollars defending discrimination. The Court was clear: The federal government must respect all marriages equally and fully. Rather than trying to delay justice for particular married gay and lesbian couples and their families, House Republicans should be working with their Democratic colleagues in Congress and the Administration to bring federal government into compliance with Court’s ruling as quickly as possible,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement.

Read The Plaintiffs’ Wednesday Filing:

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