Unit won’t process housing benefits for lesbian couple; National Guard Bureau says it expects Texas to comply with federal orders

ANNA WAUGH  |  News Editor

The Texas National Guard is still defying the federal government, ignoring a mandate that all state bases must process and issue benefits to married same-sex couples — despite state marriage amendments.

Alicia Butler was denied a spousal ID card at Camp Mabry in Austin back in September because the Guard refused to issue them to same-sex partners.

Another Austin couple was denied benefits this week when a base refused to process a housing allowance request granted to married opposite-sex couples.

Cassaundra StJohn, the member’s spouse, declined a request to be interviewed because of her wife’s rank and career.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced last month he was instructing the National Guard Bureau to work with all state Guards not following his August directive to process benefits for same-sex spouses after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The National Guard said this week it had reached out to Texas and expected its units to comply with the Department of Defense’s orders.

Chris Rowzee, spokeswoman for American Military Partner Association, a group that supports LGBT military members and their families, said the couple recently married in New Mexico and while there registered at a federal military base in Albuquerque in order to get around having to travel when they returned back to Texas.

But then the couple returned and applied for the housing allowance “with a dependant rate.” Rowzee said the Guard is refusing to recognize the marriage for state or federal purposes. The benefit is a federal one that married military members are legally entitled to.

“It’s a federal benefit,” Rowzee said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the state. Their denying it is discriminatory and illegal.”

Texas Military Forces said this week it was directing all same-sex couples to register for all benefits on federal bases. In a statement to Dallas Voice, a TMF representative said after the ID card was issued through the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, “all local Texas National Guard facilities and personnel will process Base Allowance for Housing  (BAH) and other federal benefits to which they are entitled.”

“To reiterate, we are not denying any benefits to military members and spouses who are entitled to them, to include BAH,” the representative wrote in an email, adding that leaders are working to issue benefits, despite the state’s law conflicting with the federal mandate. “Despite the legal conflict, the organization remains committed to ensuring military personnel and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled.”

Rowzee said the denial is “even more serious” than not processing a spouse’s application for an ID card. She said the refusal to give the couple the benefit contradicts what the Texas National Guard has said before, that it wouldn’t issue IDs to gay couples because of the state marriage amendment, but it would still honor federal benefits for those couples.

“This is completely contradictory to their earlier claims that no one was being ‘denied’ benefits, that it was just an ‘inconvenience’ to have to go enroll at a federal facility,” she said.

When the Department of Defense’s orders that same-sex spouses would receive all of the same benefits as opposite-sex spouses went into effect in September, Texas refused to register same-sex partners at that time and directed them to federal facilities. Several other states followed Texas’ lead, including Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

After two months of inaction and members of Congress calling on Hagel to act, he said he will fight the battle to provide equal access to all National Guard families, regardless of sexual orientation.

“All spouses of service members are entitled to DoD ID cards, and the benefits that come with them,” Hagel said last month.

Hagel also instructed National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass, “to take immediate action to remedy this situation.”

National Guard Bureau spokesman Major Gary Arasin told Dallas Voice this week Grass has met with generals in the states refusing to comply, addressing concerns about state constitutional amendments barring the recognition of same-sex marriage.

“Soldiers, Airmen, and their family members who serve their nation deserve the full complement of benefits they have earned through their service and sacrifice,” Arasin wrote in an email. “Nothing less than 100 percent compliance is acceptable.”

DoD spokesman Nathan Christensen said the IDs and benefits are all federal issues and the National Guard Bureau is handling the situation. He declined to speculate on further action from the Pentagon to force Texas to obey Hagel.

“These are federal ID cards paid for with federal funding to provide federally mandated benefits,” Christensen said. “We’re not going to speculate on legal options at this time.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 22, 2013.