Texas Guard refuses to process same-sex benefits

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas National Guard refused to process requests from same-sex couples for benefits Tuesday, citing the state Constitution’s ban on gay marriage, despite a Pentagon directive to do so.

Pentagon officials said Texas appeared to be the only state that planned to turn gay and lesbian couples away Tuesday, the first working day that gays in the military may apply for benefits. The Department of Defense had announced it would recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal following the U.S. Supreme Court decision throwing out the Defense of Marriage Act.

Maj. Gen. John Nichols, the commanding general of Texas Military Forces, wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press that because the Texas Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, his state agency couldn’t process applications from gay and lesbian couples. But he said the Texas National Guard, Texas Air Guard and Texas State Guard would not deny anyone benefits.

“However, the (Texas Military Forces) remains committed to ensuring its military personnel and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled. As such, we encourage anyone affected by this issue to enroll for benefits at a federal installation,” he advised service members. He then listed 22 bases operated by the Department of Defense in Texas where service members could enroll their families.

National guard officials in several states that ban gay marriage said Tuesday that they will follow federal law, including Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan, Kentucky, Georgia, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, Nevada and Montana

Pentagon officials were aware of the situation. Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen issued a statement saying said federal officials will process all applications from same-sex couples with a marriage certificate from a state where it is legal.

Alicia Butler said she was turned away from the Texas Military Forces headquarters in Austin early Tuesday and advised to get her ID card at Fort Hood, 90 miles away. She married her spouse — an Iraq war veteran — in California in 2009, and they have a 5-month-old child.

“It’s so petty. It’s not like it’s going to stop us from registering or stop us from marrying. It’s a pointed way of saying, ‘We don’t like you,’” Butler said.

She said she was concerned the state would withhold survivor benefits if something happened to her wife while she was activated on state duty rather than on federal deployment.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you live somewhere else?’” she said. “Well, my ancestors came here five generations ago to get away from this kind of stuff, and this is my state and I’m not going to go away.”

The American Military Partner Association, which advocates for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people in the armed forces, gave the AP a copy of Nichols’ letter.

“It’s truly outrageous that the State of Texas has decided to play politics with our military families,” said Stephen Peters, the organization’s president. “Our military families are already dealing with enough problems and the last thing they need is more discrimination from the state of Texas.”

Gov. Rick Perry’s office issued a single-sentence statement when asked about the dispute, saying: “As a state agency, Texas Military Forces must adhere with Texas law and the Texas Constitution, which clearly define marriage as between one man and one woman.”

Despite the legal conflict, Texas Military Forces, which oversees the state’s National Guard units, “remains committed to ensuring military personnel and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” agency spokeswoman Laura Lopez said.

Florida Department of Military Affairs spokesman Lt. Col. James Evans said he was unaware of any policy that would prohibit accepting a request for processing benefits.

In Oklahoma, where gay marriage also is banned, requests for benefits for same-sex couples will be handled like those from heterosexual couples, said Oklahoma National Guard spokesman Col. Max Moss. So far, only one National Guard soldier has inquired about receiving benefits for her same-sex partner, but she didn’t have a valid marriage license from one of the states that authorizes same-sex marriages, Moss said.

“As long as the soldier presents that marriage certificate or license, then we would treat that claim just like we would any other soldier that brings in a marriage license or certificate,” Moss said.

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