(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel blasted nine U.S. states saying it is "wrong" for them to defy the Pentagon by not allowing National Guard facilities to issue ID cards to same-sex spouses to enable them to claim benefits.
"This is wrong. Not only does this violate the states' obligation under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they're entitled to," Hagel said in a speech at the Anti-Defamation League centennial dinner in New York on Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
There are 114 Army and Air National Guard sites in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia that are not providing ID cards to same-sex spouses, defying a Pentagon policy that took effect Sept. 3.
The policy extends the same health care, housing and other benefits to same-sex spouses that are available to opposite-sex spouses. The move followed a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act and thereby allowed same-sex married couples to receive federal benefits.
Hagel said he has ordered the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, to "take immediate action to remedy this situation."
However, it is not clear if Grass has the legal authority to force the states to change course.
Hagel wants Grass to meet the heads of the states' Guard units. "The adjutants general will be expected to comply with both lawful direction and [Department of Defense] policy, in line with the practices of 45 other states and jurisdictions," he said.
There are about 18,000 same-sex couples, including those unmarried, in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees, according to AP. The benefits are meant only for married gay partners of military members.
Some states have said they have a reason not to comply with the Pentagon policy.
Alex Weintz, spokesman for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, earlier cited the approval of a 2004 state constitutional amendment by voters to prohibit giving benefits of marriage to gay couples. "Because of that prohibition, Gov. Fallin's general counsel has advised the National Guard not to process requests for benefits of same-sex couples," Weintz said in September. "Gay couples that have been legally married in other states will be advised they can apply for those benefits on federal facilities, such as Tinker Air Force Base, rather than state run facilities."
In February, Hagel's predecessor Leon Panetta introduced the previous benefits plan for same-sex military partners, which provided them with limited benefits such as access to military stores and some welfare programs.