WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is preparing to expand benefits to same-sex partners of military personnel, but it remained doubtful that the Pentagon could offer the medical, dental and housing allowances desired by gay and lesbian couples, officials said Tuesday.
Full benefits would require the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1996 law that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Despite lifting the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops serving in the armed forces, the Pentagon cannot recognize their marriages, even if they are legal in some states, because military personnel are federal employees covered by DOMA.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on whether the law is constitutional.
Officials said Panetta would order benefits that included the issuance of military identification cards to same-sex partners of military personnel, akin to those offered any dependent. That would bring privileges to shop at military commissaries, as well as access to gymnasiums, movie theaters and various family-support programs on bases and posts.
The focus is on those benefits that fall under Pentagon policy and can be changed by the defense secretary, rather than on benefits covered by DOMA.
While not insignificant, an expansion of benefits limited to those privileges would fall far short of the financial benefits given married military couples — including medical and dental benefits and housing allowances. Officials said the final benefits package had not been decided.
Pentagon and military officials spoke to the New York Times about the move on the condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made. Panetta's decision comes as he nears the end of his tenure as Pentagon chief and on the heels of President Barack Obama's broad call for equal rights for gays during his inaugural speech.