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Federal judge orders VA to obey Supreme Court on same-sex benefits

Carolyn Kaster / AP file

Tracey Cooper-Harris, who served in the Army for 12 years, left, and her spouse, Maggie Cooper-Harris, at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

The Department of Veterans Affairs can no longer rely on its unique reading of federal law to refuse to provide full benefits to a California veteran in a same-sex marriage, a federal judge declared in a ruling filed late Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall of Los Angeles sided with Tracey Cooper-Harris of Pasadena, Calif., a 12-year Army veteran, who sued the VA for denying her full disability benefits because she is married to a woman.

The VA is the defendant in several lawsuits over its assertion that the Supreme Court's decision in June striking down the Defense of Marriage Act didn't apply to it. 

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki argued in a letter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee, that Title 38 of the federal code regulating veterans' benefits still defined a spouse as "a person of the opposite sex." Because that statute hadn't yet specifically been overturned, he wrote, the VA continues to recognize it.

"Should the ... spousal definitions be revised or determined to be unconstitutional, VA will be prepared to update its policies and systems in a timely manner," Shinseki wrote Aug. 14.

But Marshall found that the Supreme Court's June decision in Windsor v. U.S. made that section of the law unconstitutional "under rational basis scrutiny." Therefore, the VA can't deny benefits to same-sex partners as a matter of law, she wrote.

"The denial of benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages is not rationally related to any of these military purposes" in the statute, she wrote.

The order permanently enjoins the VA from relying on that law "to deny recognition of Plaintiffs' marriage by the state of California."

Read the District Court ruling (.pdf)

Cooper-Harris, who served in Iraq before her honorable discharge in 2003, married another woman in 2008. In her suit, she reported that even though she suffers from multiple sclerosis, she gets only $1,478 a month in VA disability — $124 less than for a married veteran.

The VA and Cooper-Harris didn't immediately return calls seeking comment early Friday. But Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, said in an email message to NBC News that "Title 38 clearly violated the constitutional rights of our military veteran families."

"This decision sets our nation on a path to honoring and serving all of our veterans and their families, regardless of their sexual orientation," he said.


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