DOMA Repeal: How the Department Of Defense is the Unknown Soldier in the Fight For Gay Rights
The Supreme Court ruling on DOMA has created a race of implementation that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the DOD have already gotten a head start on. Hagel announced that the DOD will "immediately begin" the process of implementing today's ruling. Unbeknownst to many, Hagel and predecessor Panetta have been crafting a battle plan for the defense of same-sex couples for a while.
Prior to the ruling, DOMA greatly limited federal benefits to same-sex couples and respective families, including personnel in the military. The final ruling questioned the constitutionality of DOMA with regards to the Fifth Amendment, citing that DOMA forced same-sex marriages to be "treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law." While the ruling and Hagel's statement show the rapid movement of the DOD, it pales in comparison to the progress made in the past few years concerning homosexuality in the military. The policy of Don't Ask Don't Tell was just repealed in 2011.
After Don't Ask Don't Tell, same-sex couples and dependents were deprived of many benefits enjoyed by heterosexual-couples and dependents. The two biggest benefits missing were health care (usually Tricare) and housing allowances dependent on marriage and family. Others included identification cards, legal assistance, sexual assault counseling, joint duty assignments, and death and disability compensation.
Even though Former Secretary Leon Panetta was faced with criticism about sexual assault and the war in Afghanistan at the end of his term, Panetta had been moving quickly to expand as many benefits to same-sex marriages as possible. A DOD memo from February of this year outlined an initiative to give the maximum benefits to same-sex couples. These included the previously mentioned benefits, sans the two largest, health insurance and housing allowances.While Panetta's list has been implemented gradually since February, the ruling today now gives Hagel the full authority to give completely equal benefits to all military personnel.
The military is in a unique situation that favors same-sex couples. The ruling grants federal benefits to those who live in states where same-sex marriage is legalized. However, Hagel's statement explicitly extends to all military personnel. How? U.S. military bases are considered federal lands with federal jurisdiction. While there is concurrent jurisdiction with state powers, this usually applies to criminal offenses. The benefits extended to personnel are mostly on base, but off base the DOD contracts benefits such as specific insurance or health-care practices.
While some may call it a loophole, and the finality not yet in place, the DOD has become one of the more progressive arms of the federal government in terms of same-sex rights and benefits. Now, it's not perfect. The VA has numerous challenges ahead of itself for determining benefits to veterans. What is certain is that the DOD has been ahead of the game, making the DOMA ruling a final piece, as opposed to the first step, of the military's recognition of all military personnel, sexual orientation aside. Now that's really looking out for the troops.