The move represents another Obama administration response to the Supreme Court decision this year that overturned a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act. In recent months, the Pentagon and the Office of Personnel Management said they would treat gay marriages equal to opposite-sex marriages for purposes of federal benefits, while the Internal Revenue Service said the same last week in regard to tax treatment.
The Supreme Court declared in June that the federal government must provide legally married gay couples with the same federal tax, health, Social Security and other benefits that opposite-sex couples receive. That ruling involved a woman who was denied a spousal exemption to the federal estate tax when her wife died.
The DOMA decision did not directly address the constitutionality of the statute affecting veterans’ benefits, but Holder said in his letter: “The reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.”
Civil liberties groups praised the administration’s policy change on Wednesday.
“The continued unwinding of discrimination against legally married couples in the aftermath of the Windsor decision is a welcome development,” said James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “The federal government is right to ensure that legally married couples, where a spouse has served valiantly in the military, are treated equally.”