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Pentagon To Off Some Benefits to Gay Spouses

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 7, 2013 3:07 pm



On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. As soon as today, the Pentagon could announce it is extending some benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian service members. The move comes two years after the repeal of the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." Since nine states and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex marriage, the Pentagon has struggled with whether and how to recognize these spouses. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Major Shannon McLachlan has been in the Army for 14 years. She is married, with two-year-old twins. And she says her wife has to deal with lots of challenges that other military spouses never run into.

MAJOR SHANNON MCLACHLAN: Just being able to have that military ID as my spouse, to bring our twins onto the base if they had a medical or a dental appointment, she's not able to do that at this point.

SHAPIRO: Serving in the military is not just another job. It can send you far away, consume your life, even end your life. So military spouses have always had more burdens and more benefits than the spouses of, say, teachers or lawyers.

MCLACHLAN: It'll affect our quality of life significantly should these benefits be extended, and I do think that the symbolism goes a long way to treating all military families equally.

SHAPIRO: The perks that could come with this announcement cover a wide range. Congressman Adam Schiff of California led a group of Democratic lawmakers who pushed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to make these changes. Schiff says married, gay military constituents told him how discouraged they were to be treated differently.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: You might have two members of the military in the service, and one gets an assignment, but the other can't take advantage of the military's policy of trying to place two service member couples in the same part of the world.

SHAPIRO: But there are many spousal benefits that won't be part of this arrangement. Allyson Robinson is executive director of Outserve SLDN, an organization that represents gay service members.

ALLYSON ROBINSON: Even if Secretary Panetta offers the full slate of benefits he can under the current law, until DOMA is repealed, we will still be so far from true equality.

SHAPIRO: DOMA is the Defense of Marriage Act. It prohibits the federal government from giving health care, survivor pensions or a wide range of other benefits to same-sex couples. Robinson's organization is challenging the law. The Supreme Court will hear the case next month.

Even so, the Pentagon's just the latest part of the federal government to look for a DOMA workaround. The State Department extended some same-sex benefits in 2009. The Office of Personnel Management proposed a rule last year to extend health coverage to the children of gay couples.

And the president's immigration proposal would allow gay Americans to sponsor a spouse from a foreign country. The uncertain fate of DOMA hangs over all of this. That's one reason Peter Sprig of the Family Research Council wishes the Pentagon would wait.

PETER SPRIG: If the Supreme Court were to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, then, in a sense, all of this debate would be moot.

SHAPIRO: But he hopes the court upholds the act.

SPRIG: There is a reason why society gives benefits to marriage, because marriage gives benefits to society. And as long as marriage is defined under federal law as the union of one man and one woman, then the benefits of marriage throughout the federal government, including the military, should be limited to marriages of one man and one woman.

SHAPIRO: As a political move, the Pentagon's action is barely controversial. Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says support for gay rights has been on a rocket trajectory. Just a few years ago, gay marriage opponents far outnumbered supporters.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: In 2012, the numbers on gay marriage officially crossed. For the first time, we're seeing more people supportive of gay marriage than opposed.

SHAPIRO: Support for gays in the military is even higher. It's hard to tell whether President Obama's pro-gay positions are helping to create this wave, or just letting him surf it. Regardless, Dimock says, this fits into a broader Democratic political strategy aiming for where the country will be years from now.

DIMOCK: Taking on issues like gay marriage and immigration are very appealing issues to younger generations and to the broad minority population in this country, both of which are the future majorities in the nation, as you look down the long, long run.

SHAPIRO: The White House did not take any responsibility for pushing the Pentagon on these latest changes. But spokesman Jay Carney says it's been on the president's radar, and he believes it's an issue that needed to be addressed. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.