AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas National Guard refused to process requests from same-sex couples for benefits on Tuesday despite a Pentagon directive to do so, while Mississippi won't issue applications from state-owned offices. Both states cited their respective bans on gay marriage.
Tuesday was the first working day that gays in the military could apply for benefits after the Pentagon announced it would recognize same-sex marriages. The Department of Defense had announced that it would recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out parts of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Texas and Mississippi appeared to be the only two states limiting how and where same-sex spouses of National Guard members could register for identification cards and benefits, according to an Associated Press tally. Officials in 13 other states that also ban gay marriage - including Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan and Georgia - said Tuesday that they will follow federal law and process all couples applying for benefits the same.
Maj. Gen. John Nichols, the commanding general of Texas Military Forces, wrote to service members in a letter obtained by the AP that because the Texas Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, his state agency couldn't process applications from gay and lesbian couples. But he said the Texas National Guard, Texas Air Guard and Texas State Guard would not deny anyone benefits.
Nichols wrote that his agency, which oversees Texas' National Guard units, "remains committed to ensuring its military personnel and their families receive the benefits to which they are entitled. As such, we encourage anyone affected by this issue to enroll for benefits at a federal installation." He then listed 22 bases operated by the Department of Defense in Texas where service members could enroll their families.
A spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the Texas Military Forces, as a state agency, must obey state law.
Mississippi National Guard spokesman Tim Powell said the main factor in determining where same-sex spouses could apply for benefits came down to the property owner. Powell said only National Guard offices on federal property would accept the applications in Mississippi, which also constitutionally bans gay marriage.
"It is our intent to provide benefits and services to our men and women in uniform and at the same time abide by federal and state statutes," Powell said.
Once the same-sex spouse is approved and obtains an ID, they may go to any base for services.
Pentagon officials said Texas appeared to be the only state with a total ban on processing applications from gay and lesbian couples. Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said federal officials will process all applications from same-sex couples with a marriage certificate from a state where it is legal.
Alicia Butler said she was turned away from the Texas Military Forces headquarters in Austin early Tuesday and advised to get her ID card at Fort Hood, an Army post 90 miles away. She married her spouse - an Iraq war veteran - in California in 2009, and they have a 5-month-old child.
"It's so petty. It's not like it's going to stop us from registering or stop us from marrying. It's a pointed way of saying, 'We don't like you," Butler said.
She said she was concerned the state would withhold survivor benefits if something happened to her wife while she was activated on state duty rather than on federal deployment.
"People say, 'Why don't you live somewhere else?'" she said. "Well, my ancestors came here five generations ago to get away from this kind of stuff, and this is my state and I'm not going to go away."
The American Military Partner Association, which advocates for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people in the armed forces, gave the AP a copy of Nichols' letter.
"It's truly outrageous that the State of Texas has decided to play politics with our military families," said Stephen Peters, the organization's president. "Our military families are already dealing with enough problems and the last thing they need is more discrimination from the state of Texas."
In Florida, where gay marriage is banned, state Department of Military Affairs spokesman Lt. Col. James Evans said he was unaware of any policy that would prohibit accepting a request for processing benefits.
Requests for benefits for same-sex couples in Oklahoma, where gay marriage also is illegal, will be handled like those from heterosexual couples, said Oklahoma National Guard spokesman Col. Max Moss. So far, only one National Guard soldier has inquired about receiving benefits for her same-sex partner, but she didn't have a valid marriage license from a states that authorizes same-sex marriages, Moss said.
"As long as the soldier presents that marriage certificate or license, then we would treat that claim just like we would any other soldier that brings in a marriage license or certificate," Moss said.
Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor in Washington; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich.; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Fla.; Barbara Rodriguez in Des Moines, Iowa; John Miller in Boise, Idaho; and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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