BY CURTIS TATE, MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department said Wednesday that married gay veterans would be eligible for spousal benefits, in another step toward bringing federal agencies in line with a June Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
In a letter to Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that the Obama administration would cease enforcing a federal law that defined “spouse” as a person of the opposite sex, precluding married gay couples from receiving veterans benefits.
Holder cited the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in United States v. Windsor, which effectively struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The 1996 law had prohibited the federal government from recognizing gay marriage, including for the purpose of federal benefits.
But Holder’s letter did not address an issue that could prevent couples in states that ban gay marriage from receiving veterans benefits. In a separate decision last week, the Internal Revenue Service announced that gay couples in any state could file joint tax returns as long as the couple was legally married in another state where gay marriage is legal — also known as the “place of celebration” rule.
“It shouldn’t matter what state people live in, if they’re married,” said Denny Meyer, a spokesman for American Veterans for Equal Rights, a veterans group that supports equal benefits for same-sex couples.
It’s not yet clear what rule applies for veterans. If it’s the place of celebration, then any couple would be eligible. If it’s the “place of residence” rule, spousal benefits might not be available to gay veterans in about three dozen states, including Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, which have some of the nation’s largest veteran populations.