Jeanne Shaheen on Marriage Equality, Military Benefits

With the New Hampshire primary expected to take place 10 weeks from Tuesday, some presidential candidates are wasting no time in expressing solidarity with antigay forces who seek to repeal the state’s marriage equality law. Rick Perry was the latest to fall in line: On Friday, the Texas governor said in an address to Cornerstone Action that he applauds those “who are working to defend marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.”

But the repeal effort faces a certain veto from Gov. John Lynch and a lack of majority support among those living in the Granite State, where a National Guardswoman who recently returned from deployment was told last month that she was barred from bringing her partner to a Yellow Ribbon homecoming event.

Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan was ultimately allowed to attend the event with her partner of 14 years after clarification from the Pentagon on available benefits (gay service member advocates want to see more extended), as well as a letter written on her behalf by New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Morgan has since become one of several service members challenging the Defense of Marriage Act in a federal lawsuit filed last week.

A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shaheen saw the Yellow Ribbon issue as a matter of common sense: A guardswoman allowed to serve openly post-“don’t ask, don’t tell” should, by default, be allowed to bring her family to an event that is geared toward “promoting the well-being of the National Guard and reserve members, their families and communities, by connecting them with resources throughout the deployment cycle,” according to a mission statement on the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program's website.

Shaheen has cited the incident as further evidence on why a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act that she has cosponsored is necessary. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin debate on the bill, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, though its overall prospects in the current congressional session remain grim (“[T]ruthfully, the recourse to the courts is probably going to be the best approach,” President Obama said of DOMA in a September White House roundtable).

“There are two issues here: One is that DOMA specifically discriminates against gay and lesbian service members, and we need to challenge that,” Shaheen said in a telephone interview last week. “But there are a lot of rules and regulations that the military can review and make changes to without requiring legislation. Hopefully this incident will prompt them to clarify for people in the military what the circumstances are with respect to certain programs and events.”

Securing all benefits for gay service members not excluded by DOMA or provisions in the U.S. Code could be a possible topic of a future Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Shaheen said, though she added that she is not aware of any current plans to do so. “I certainly think the committee can encourage the military to take the actions that they can, to implement a full repeal within the rules and regulations as expeditiously as possible,” she said. “I think if you look at the vote on repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ there are members of the committee that have good perspective on this.”

Though she had opposed marriage equality as Democratic governor of New Hampshire, Shaheen praised the 2009 passage of the state’s marriage bill and is now dismayed at the repeal effort by a faction of social conservative lawmakers. Last week, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee voted to advance a bill that would repeal the law and replace equal marriage rights with a form of civil unions.

“I’m very disappointed with the actions of the legislature — and I’m hopeful that they will not be successful,” Shaheen said. “These people represent the extreme right wing within this country. … I don’t think they represent the majority of the public.”

On marriage equality, Shaheen said she believed that DOMA repeal “provides an opportunity for states to address the issue," as the 1996 law "currently acts as a disincentive for states to act independently.”

Asked about her own personal position, Shaheen said, “I do think [marriage rights for gays and lesbians] should be the case in every state. But I also think it’s important for states to decide the issue.”

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