The Pentagon has decided to extend new benefits to the spouses of gay personnel, according to officials and people notified about the decision, responding to the increasingly vocal appeals of same-sex couples in the military.
The new benefits may include housing privileges, access to base recreational facilities and joint duty assignments for uniformed couples, but legal experts say the Pentagon is unlikely to find a way to offer health-care coverage and more than 100 other spousal benefits while the Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — remains in effect.
The decision represents the Obama administration’s latest effort to expand legal rights for same-sex couples. It also comes at a time of growing momentum for those campaigning for the full equality of gay men and lesbians.
In his inaugural address last month, President Obama appealed for gay Americans to be “treated like anyone else under the law.” Last weekend, he said he thinks it is time for the Boy Scouts of America to end its ban on gay members and leaders.
Supporters of gay service members welcomed the Pentagon’s decision on Tuesday, noting that it may shore up support for marriage equality in the lead-up to a Supreme Court ruling that could legalize same-sex unions.
“If you provide benefits to individuals seen as the most deserving and the social fabric doesn’t tear, that does make it easier down the line to do away with DOMA,” said Tammy S. Schultz, the director of the National Security and Joint Warfare Program at the Marine Corps War College, who has studied implementing the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops. “It could be a flanking maneuver to keep chipping away at it.”
The new guidelines will be departing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta’s final imprint on the armed forces. They also will come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken during his relatively short tenure: the rescinding of the ban on openly gay service members and the decision to allow women to serve in combat units.
Military officials have struggled with the flurry of equality quandaries that have emerged since the ban on openly gay troops was lifted in September 2011, following congressional repeal of the law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The military “has established a two-tiered system regarding how they treat the haves and have-not families,” said Allyson Robinson, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization that has been pressing the Pentagon to expand benefits to same-sex couples. “It’s an untenable leadership situation.”
Panetta is expected to make the announcement this week, according to a U.S. official and a congressional aide briefed on the decision. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement has not been made.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment.
Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the department has been conducting a “deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners.” She noted that the Defense Department already grants some benefits to same-sex spouses, mainly relating to troop deaths and other emergencies.
In October, the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a final version of a plan to extend benefits to same-sex couples, said Robinson, who has informally advised the Pentagon on the issue. The chiefs did not take action on the recommendations at the time, she said, but the issue appears to have gained new momentum in recent months.
The government in 2010 expanded the range of benefits available to same-sex spouses of civilian employees, but those guidelines did not apply to the armed forces.
The issue also surfaced during the confirmation hearing of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who has disavowed disparaging remarks he made in 1998 about an openly gay ambassador. Hagel sought to reassure senators during his opening remarks last week, saying he is “fully committed” to implementing the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops and saying he would do “everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
Activists and lawmakers who champion gay rights say they recognize that many benefits mandated by federal law will remain unavailable to military gay couples because of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month about the constitutionality of the law, which lower courts have struck down. The court will rule on the issue before the end of June.
Still, gay rights activists and lawmakers who have pushed the Pentagon to offer benefits to same-sex couples say the military can take meaningful steps now. These include offering gay spouses military identification cards and access to commissaries and family support programs. The military also could offer same-sex couples transportation privileges for couples stationed abroad, according to those pressing for expanded benefits.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Panetta co-signed by 25 lawmakers urging him to extend these benefits as a matter of policy.
“As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same-sex spouses and their families,” the congressman wrote. “Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also appealed to Panetta, a civil rights champion who often talks about being the son of Italian immigrants, not to leave office without tackling this issue.
“Before you retire, and to secure your legacy on this critical issue, we urge you to change Defense Department rules to extend as many benefits as possible,” she wrote in a Jan. 28 letter co-signed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
The Army has wrestled in recent weeks with a controversy at Fort Bragg, N.C., that has given the issue greater urgency. After the wife of a female lieutenant colonel was denied membership at the officers’ spouses organization in December, ostensibly for not having a military ID, her case made national news. It prompted the Marine Corps to issue a memo saying that groups at its bases nationwide could not reject prospective members on the basis of sexual orientation.
The spouses group backed down last month, offering the officer’s wife, Ashley Broadway, full membership. The announcement came the same day Broadway learned that she had been named Fort Bragg spouse of the year by Military Spouse magazine.
Julie Tate and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.