The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 29th

State National Guard extends benefits to same-sex couples

Federal benefits will be available to gay couples in the N.C. National Guard.

Gay rights activist groups across North Carolina are praising the N.C. National Guard for its decision Monday to extend federal benefits to married same-sex couples.

The U.S. Department of Defense issued an order in August that state National Guards had to begin recognizing all legal marriages for the purpose of federal benefits by early September, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“(Recognition for gay couples in the National Guard) is something that has been a long time in the making, and especially since the downfall of DOMA,” said James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh.

The decision will affect same-sex couples who have been married in Washington, D.C. or one of the 13 states where gay marriage is legal, regardless of their state of residence, Miller said.

He said these benefits include survivorship benefits, health benefits and first-of-kin notification if a person’s spouse dies while serving.

Chris Sgro, executive director of LGBT rights group Equality N.C., said in a statement that despite the federal benefits some gay couples in North Carolina will now receive, they are still discriminated against by the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“We must at once applaud this decision by the National Guard, while also using this momentum to begin ending state-level discrimination against loving, committed couples wherever they live,” he said.

But not all National Guard members in states with same-sex marriage bans are seeing the same extension of benefits.

In Texas, which also has a constitutional ban on gay marriage, the state National Guard is still not offering benefits to same-sex couples. The Texas National Guard said in a statement that the new Department of Defense policy conflicts with state law.

“The Texas Military Forces will continue to follow state law until legal clarification is received from the Texas State Attorney General,” the statement said.

Eric Martinson, a former member of Oklahoma’s National Guard and president of the Veterans’ Military Advocacy Student Organization in UNC’s School of Law, said state governments will have a hard time opposing the measure because National Guard organizations function as both state and federal entities.

“The same concerns that backed the reasons why we do have survivor benefits for heterosexual couples are not unique to heterosexual couples,” Martinson said.

“(The state is) going to have a hard time denying service members benefits the federal government says they’re entitled to.”

Justine Hollingshead, director of the GLBT Center at N.C. State University, said she is heartened by the N.C. National Guard’s decision in spite of the state’s conservative political climate.

“With the news last week of other states like Texas, who are standing their ground and refusing to provide those benefits, I think it speaks volumes about the National Guard here in North Carolina,” Hollingshead said.

She said the benefits are often critical for the living situations of married gay couples.

“It’s an absolute necessity that we’re treating same-sex couples and heterosexual couples the same.”

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