By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. military cannot deny spousal benefits to a lesbian veteran in a same-sex marriage because doing so does not serve any purpose for the armed forces, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.
The decision, which could set the stage for gay and lesbian veterans and their partners to claim those benefits, follows a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that invalidated a key portion of the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that had defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall, a federal judge based in Los Angeles, made the latest ruling in the case of a lawsuit filed last year by a U.S. Army veteran and her lesbian spouse.
The couple's attorneys had sought an order from the judge that would find unconstitutional a federal statute that denies benefits to U.S. military veterans in same-sex unions.
The lawsuit centers on a statute governing military benefits that defines spouse and surviving spouse to refer to those in opposite sex marriages.
Judge Marshall in her ruling cited evidence that the purpose of the spousal benefits was, in part, to ensure that service members perform to their highest potential and to make it easier to recruit and train Americans to join the armed forces.
"The denial of benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages is not rationally related to any of these military purposes," Marshall wrote.
Marshall in her decision noted that the Supreme Court, in its decision striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, did not rule on the constitutionality of the statute that limits spousal benefits for veterans to those who are in heterosexual marriages.
A representative for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could not be reached for comment late on Thursday.
The department had indicated that legislation was needed to grant veterans in same-sex marriages benefits for their spouses, the office of U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said in a statement earlier this week.
Tracey Cooper-Harris, who sued in the case before Judge Marshall, served nine years in active duty with the U.S. Army, including a 2003 tour in Kuwait that resulted in her being sent into Iraq during the U.S.-led war, according to her complaint.
She was married to her partner and co-plaintiff in the case, Maggie Cooper-Harris, in Los Angeles in 2008.
Tracey Cooper-Harris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010 and, in anticipation of her possible death, she sought to make arrangements to provide for the support of her wife, according to the lawsuit.
But while the Department of Veterans Affairs found Tracey Cooper-Harris's disease was related to her service and awarded her disability compensation, she was told her spouse would not qualify for survivor benefits if she dies, the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit said such treatment "demeans" the pair's marriage and also "the remarkable sacrifices" of Tracey Cooper-Harris in the U.S. armed forces.
(editing by Elizabeth Piper)