WASHINGTON — A gay Army veteran and her wife sued the federal government on Wednesday after they were denied military benefits granted to straight spouses.
The lawsuit announced in Washington involves a 12-year veteran of the Army, Tracey Cooper-Harris. After leaving the Army she married Maggie Cooper-Harris in California in 2008. Two years later, Tracey Cooper-Harris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and she has received disability benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a result. But her application for additional money and benefits that married veterans are entitled to was denied.
The couple's lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in Los Angeles, argues that a federal law and military policy that resulted in the denial of benefits are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
If the couple were straight they would receive about $125 more a month in disability payments as a result of Tracey Cooper-Harris' illness, which has no cure. In addition, Maggie Cooper-Harris would be eligible for approximately $1,200 a month in benefits as a surviving spouse after her wife's death. The pair would also be eligible to be buried together in a veterans' cemetery.
"We're only asking for the same benefits as other married couples. We simply want the same peace of mind that these benefits bring to the families of other disabled veterans," said Tracey Cooper-Harris at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday.
During her military service, Cooper-Harris helped take care of drug and bomb-sniffing dogs. She met her wife, a former teacher, when the two played on opposing rugby teams in California. They now live in Pasadena, Calif.
The military has recently become more tolerant of gay service members. In September it ended its 18-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy and began allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly.
But the Pentagon has said that a federal law enacted in 1996 that defines marriage as the legal union between a man and woman prohibits the military from extending benefits to the partners of gay service members, even if they are legally married in certain states. The Defense of Marriage Act is being challenged in a number of court cases, including one by military service members filed in Massachusetts in October. Those service members were suing over a wide range of benefits that married couples receive. The Obama administration has said it will not defend the law in court.
The telephone message seeking comment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday was not immediately returned.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in six states and the District of Columbia. Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris were married in California during a brief window in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in the state before residents voted to ban it. Marriages performed before the ban are legal, though no new marriages are currently being performed.
The couple is being represented by attorneys from the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, and the law firm WilmerHale.
Jessica Gresko can be reached at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko