Feds won't enforce ban on veterans' same-sex benefits

Gay rights advocate Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag in front of the Supreme Court at sun up in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Justices are expected to hand down major rulings on two gay marriage cases that could impact same-sex couples across the country. One is a challenge to California's voter-enacted ban on same-sex marriage. The other is a challenge to a provision of federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving a range of tax, health and pension benefits. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

WASHINGTON The Obama administration said Wednesday it will stop enforcing a law that blocks benefits to partners of military veterans in same-sex marriages.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Attorney General Eric Holder said that a provision in federal law on benefits to veterans and their families defines "spouse" to mean a person of the opposite sex. He says that definition leaves out legally married same-sex couples, and runs afoul of a June Supreme Court ruling.

The court declared unconstitutional a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act restricting the words marriage and spouse to apply only to heterosexual unions. Holder says that like the Defense of Marriage Act, the provision in the veterans benefits law has the effect of placing lawfully married same-sex couples in a second-tier marriage.

"Decisions by the Executive not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare," Holder told Congress. "Nevertheless, the unique circumstances presented here warrant non-enforcement."

He said the Supreme Court's conclusion that DOMA imposes a stigma on everyone in same-sex marriages "would seem to apply equally" to the veterans benefits law. Holder noted that after the Supreme Court's decision, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives withdrew from a pending lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the veterans benefits provisions.

President Barack Obama directed the executive branch to cease enforcement of the provision, Holder wrote.

Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits, given the Supreme Court's recent ruling.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said that federal law defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex is unconstitutional since the high court's decision allowing legally married gay couples the right to health care benefits.

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