US Attorney General Eric Holder [DOJ profile] sent a letter [text] Friday to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) [official profile] stating that the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] has decided that denying same-sex couples military and veterans benefits violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment [text]. In the letter, Holder explains that denying such benefits to same-sex couples legal married under state law on the basis of Title 38 [text], sections 101(3) and 101(31) is unconstitutional. Section 101(3) defines "surviving spouse" as a person of the opposite sex and section 101(31) defines the term "spouse" in general as a person of the opposite sex. As such, Holder has instructed the Department of Justice to cease legal defense of those provisions. He says in the letter:
The legislative record of these provisions contains no rationale for providing veterans' benefits to opposite sex spouses of veterans but not to legally married same-sex spouses of veterans. Neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Veterans Affairs identified any justifications for that distinction that could warrant treating these provisions differently from Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.Holder's rationale comes out of a determination that "classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened standard of scrutiny under equal protection principles." The letter informs Boehner of how the DOJ will procede in a pending case, McLaughlin v. Panetta, involving veterans benefits.
This is the latest in the Obama Administration's fight for marriage equality. The ruling is likely to affect a suit [text, PDF] brought earlier this month over the denial of disability benefits to a same-sex spouse of a veteran [JURIST report]. President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment [JURSIT report] to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text] last October. He has also made it clear that he supports the proposed Respect for Marriage Act [text], proposed last March [JURIST report]. In February 2011, the DOJ issued a ruling announcing that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the DOMA [JURIST report].