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Disabled Veteran Sues Government for Spousal Benefits

Disabled Veteran Sues Government for Spousal Benefits

WASHINGTON -- A disabled 12-year Army veteran and her wife have filed suit against the federal government, claiming that the Defense of Marriage Act and Department of Veterans Affairs policies excluding same-sex couples from equal benefits are unconstitutional.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Sgt. Tracey Cooper-Harris and her spouse, Maggie, isn't the first DOMA-related challenge involving gay service members and their spouses. In October, a group of service members and veterans sued because they are denied equal spousal benefits such as medical care, housing, and child-care. Also last fall, a gay disabled Navy veteran who married her spouse in 2010 filed suit in the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on similar grounds.

Cooper-Harris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, which the VA determined was connected to her military service.

"Facing MS made me take a step back and examine my priorities. I wanted to make sure Maggie would be taken care of after my death," Cooper-Harris said in a Wednesday news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "The Department of Veterans Affairs denied those benefits, simply because Maggie is not a man. We're only asking for the same benefits as other married couples. We simply want the same peace of mind that [they] bring to other veterans."

But Cooper-Harris' wife has so far been denied those military benefits - including the eventual extension of spousal burial rights in a military cemetery.

"Refusing to grant these benefits to Tracey and Maggie solely because of their sexual orientation is unpatriotic and un-American," said Christine Sun, SPLC's deputy legal director. "Our nation is not serving our gay and lesbian service members as well as they serve us.

"Gay or straight, accomplishing the mission is all that matters," Sun said. "But when gay or lesbian service members come home ... suddenly it matters a great deal."

Also speaking at the Wednesday news conference was Sharron Frontiero, an Air Force veteran represented by SPLC in 1973 who won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that extended spousal military benefits regardless of gender.

"Just like Tracy, I wasn't asking for something special, I was asking for what other people around me doing the same job in the same circumstance were asking for," Frontiero said.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, lauded the suit in a Wednesday afternoon statement.

"SLDN welcomes today's filing by the Southern Poverty Law Center and looks forward to coordinating in any way they deem appropriate," Sarvis said. "This filing today advances the cause of equality for gay and lesbian service members and veterans."

SPLC filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. The case is Tracey Cooper-Harris v. United States of America.

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