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Texas rebuffs federal effort to give benefits to same-sex partners of troops

By Joe Sutton and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Texas Military Forces' chief cites conflict between state, federal on same-sex marriage benefits
  • "Eligible members" can request benefits, agency says, calling it a "processing issue"
  • Governor's office: No benefits since state law restricts marriage to 1 man, 1 woman
  • A gay rights advocacy group blasts Texas officials for playing "politics with our military families"

(CNN) -- "I shall never surrender or retreat."

So stated William Barret Travis in an 1836 letter he wrote as Mexican soldiers bore down on his overmatched troops at the Alamo. Now, more than 175 years later, Travis' Texas fighting heirs -- or, at the least, the state's governor -- are drawing their line in the sand for another reason: not to grant benefits to same-sex partners of its troops as they would for opposite-sex spouses.

"As a state agency, Texas Military Forces must adhere with Texas law, and the Texas Constitution, which clearly defines marriage as between one man and one woman," said Josh Havens, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry's office.

Despite its proud and longstanding tradition of independence, the Texas Military Forces is not like other agencies. In fact, given that it includes the Army National Guard and Air National Guard (in addition to the Texas State Guard), in some ways it is more a federal agency than a state one. As such, some argue, its policies should fall in line with those out of Washington.

Following a landmark Supreme Court ruling that effectively struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal benefits from going to same-sex partner, the door has now been opened to gay and lesbian spouses.

Shortly before leaving office earlier this year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that same-sex partners who sign a military "Declaration of Domestic Partnership" form will be eligible for several benefits, including military identification cards as dependents. Those who did would be allowed unescorted onto bases, get access to commissaries, have the right to visit their partners in military hospitals and be eligible for many survivor benefits, including life insurance benefits.

Military extends benefits to same-sex partners

The Pentagon estimated at the time that there may be 5,600 troops on active duty seeking such benefits, as well as 8,000 retirees and 3,400 National Guard troops.

Tuesday was the first day all partners of same-sex troops could claim such benefits, the Pentagon has said.

But in the latter category, Texas isn't readily coming aboard.

Texas, like some other states, expressly prohibits same-sex marriage under its law. That state law trumps federal law, argues Perry and others.

"(Texas Military Forces) is a state agency under the authority and direction of the Texas state government," wrote the forces' adjutant general, Maj. Gen. John Nichols, in a memo dated August 30. "... Due to the potential conflict (between state and federal law), we are unable to enroll same-sex families ... at our state-supported facilities until we receive legal clarification."

In a statement Tuesday, the Texas Military Forces insisted that while Nichols is asking the state's attorney general for an advisory opinion, "the state is not denying any federal benefits to military personnel or same-sex spouses of military personnel."

"This is a processing issue, not a denial of benefits issue," the agency says. "As such, we fully encourage eligible members to enroll for their federal benefits at one of the 20 nearest federal installations, which are dispersed throughout the state of Texas."

Judge: U.S. can't deny benefits to lesbian war vet's wife

The office of state Attorney General Greg Abbott did not respond to a CNN request for comment on the matter.

Yet Stephen Peters, the president of the American Military Partner Association, sees what's happening in Texas as "truly outrageous," claiming that same-sex partners are being denied certain rights and benefits simply because they're based in the Lone Star State.

"Gov. Rick Perry should be ashamed," Peters said Tuesday, accusing Texas policymakers of playing "politics with our military families."

"Our military families are already dealing with enough problems, and the last thing they need is more discrimination from the state of Texas."

CNN's Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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