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Gay marriage at Supreme Court: Will military couples get more benefits?

Same-sex military couples are not eligible for many benefits that heterosexual married couples in the military receive, including housing and medical care. But the Supreme Court could redefine the federal status of gay marriage next year.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 28, 2012

Matthew Wiltse, right, and Jonathon Bashford, left, hold hands as they are married at the Thurston County Courthouse just after midnight on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Olympia, Wash.

Rachel La Corte/AP

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When Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan returned from a year-long deployment to Kuwait with the New Hampshire National Guard in 2010, her doctor didn’t have good news. The breast cancer thought to be in remission, the physician said, had returned, and the diagnosis was terminal.

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That’s when Morgan began a new battle – to make sure her wife and their daughter receive the same survivor benefits that would go to any other married couple with children.

The US Supreme Court’s decision to take up the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) could have a considerable impact on the benefits of same-sex spouses of service members, who were largely invisible to the military until the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT).

So far, the DADT repeal has simply meant that US troops no longer face being forced out of the military for their sexual orientation.

But for the partners of gay troops, the impact of the repeal has been less sweeping and more ambiguous.

Even when gay couples are legally married under state law, for example, Section 3 of DOMA forbids the US government from treating such military couples as married.

And so they are not eligible for the kinds of benefits that heterosexual married couples receive in the military, including housing, medical care, and in the case of Morgan and others, survivor benefits should they die while serving their country.

DOMA Section 3 is the specific measure that will be reviewed by the Supreme Court in March. 

Passed by Congress in 1996, the law declares that the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman and that the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is also a husband or wife.

As a result, under federal law, the benefits of marriage can go only to a person of the opposite sex, regardless of state law.

DOMA Section 3 has been declared unconstitutional by eight federal courts. 

The Obama administration said last year that it would enforce the law, but would no longer defend it in court.

Should DOMA Section 3 be struck down by the Supreme Court, “My sense is that same-sex couples who are married under state law would be treated exactly the same as married couples are for the purposes of treatment on military installations and for benefits,” says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University.

Currently, there is an “exhaustive list” of benefits that same-sex spouses do not receive, says Zeke Stokes, spokesman for OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy organization in Washington.

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