WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Wednesday escalated its effort to dismantle federal barriers to same-sex marriages, announcing that the Department of Veterans Affairs would immediately begin providing spousal benefits to gay men and lesbians despite a federal statute that limits such benefits to veterans' spouses who are "of the opposite sex."
In letters to congressional leaders, Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama had directed the executive branch to stop obeying the statute because it had decided that it was unconstitutional in light of a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down a similar law, a part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"Decisions by the Executive not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare," Holder wrote. "Nevertheless, for the reasons described below, the unique circumstances presented here warrant nonenforcement."
After the Supreme Court ruling, many agencies have been rewriting their regulations to define marriage in gender-neutral terms. Last month the military announced that the same-sex spouses of active-duty personnel would receive similar family and spousal benefits.
But the VA is in a different situation because Congress codified its definition of who was eligible for spousal benefits as a statute.
Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said last month in a letter released by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that although the Department of Veterans Affairs could recognize a same-sex marriage that is valid under state law, "nonetheless, a same-sex spouse whose marriage to a veteran was valid in the state where the parties resided at the time they entered the marriage would not meet the definition of 'spouse' " under the federal statute for the purpose of veterans benefits.
Should Congress approve legislation revising the spousal definitions statute or should a court strike the law down, Shinseki added, the VA would swiftly adjust its policy.