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Senators Hassan, Peters, Collins, Murkowski Announce Bipartisan Legislation to Update VA’s Definition of Marriage to Recognize Same-Sex Marriage for Veterans, Ensure Veterans & Their Families Can Access Benefits

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Gary Peters (D-MI), Susan Collins (R-ME),  and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) announced bipartisan legislation to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to update the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples – ensuring no veteran or their family is denied access to the benefits they earned while serving our country.

Under current law, the VA defines “spouse” and “surviving spouse” as a person “of the opposite sex.” In 2013, then-President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order directing the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of this discriminatory definition and as a result, the VA began administering spousal and survivors’ benefits to same-sex married couples. However, the VA’s definition of spouse for purpose of receiving benefits was never legally changed, despite the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor that defining “spouse” in a way that prohibits the recognition same-sex marriages violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This ruling meant that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as married opposite sex couples. The Senators’ Veterans Marriage Recognition Act would update and codify the definition of “spouse” to reflect same-sex couples’ rights, strengthening the legal path for same-sex couples to receive VA benefits. This legislation would ensure the federal code reflects the progress we have made and codify the legal protections in United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which held in 2015 that the right to marry for same-sex couples is guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The Senate has never passed legislation to formally update the VA statute to reflect the Supreme Court ruling and recognize same-sex veteran spouses in law.

“Every veteran should have access to the health care and benefits that they have earned and deserve, no matter their zip code, their income – or who they love,” said Senator Hassan. “This Pride Month, I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing legislation to ensure that the VA recognizes same-sex couples. Veterans and military families sacrifice so much for our country, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to strengthen support for veterans.”

“Every veteran – no matter who they love – should be able to access the VA benefits and resources they have earned through their service,” said Senator Peters, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to ensure the VA legally recognizes same-sex marriage and does not deny these veterans or their spouses their benefits. This recognition is long overdue, and I will be working to pass this commonsense legislation in the Senate.”

“Spouses of active duty service members are the unsung heroes of our country’s national defense, often putting their personal and professional lives on hold to support their families and their loved ones in uniform,” said Senator Collins. “This long-overdue update to the VA’s definition of marriage in the federal code to include same-sex couples will ensure that veteran spouses – regardless of their sexual orientation – receive the spousal and survivors’ benefits to which they are entitled.” 

“I’m committed to supporting all of Alaska’s veterans. That includes ensuring all veterans, their spouses, and their families have equal opportunities to access the benefits they have earned and that Federal statutes reflect the law of the land,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski. “I’m proud to help lead the Veterans Marriage Recognition Act, which will update U.S. Code to strike outdated terminology and protect access to benefits for all veterans and their spouses. This is a positive step towards a more inclusive VA.”

“The Palm Center applauds the legislation updating VA’s language on military families,” said Aaron Belkin, Director of the Palm Center, an independent research institute that studies U.S. military personnel policy. “The revision is consistent with the requisites of military readiness and with our nation’s commitment to treating all our veterans and their families equally.”