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Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry

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The below is a joint piece by Evan Wolfson and Aubrey Sarvis. Evan Wolfson is founder and President of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide. Aubrey Sarvis is an Army Veteran and Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN)

Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden hosted an afternoon tea at the White House to recognize military mothers and wives. The celebration on Military Spouse Appreciation Day and Mother's Day was part of their Joining Forces initiative, which asks all American citizens to take action and make a real commitment to supporting our military families.

Individuals, organizations, and policymakers from both sides of the aisle are doing much to support our troops. But there is more to be done - including providing basic equal treatment to the families of gay and lesbian service members.

On Monday, America will observe the first Memorial Day since repeal of the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law. Gay and lesbian patriots serving in the Armed Forces now may do so openly, without the burden of silence that dishonored them, their loved ones, and our country. But as long as the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is on the books, our service members are still are not treated equally, and their families are denied important protections afforded to all others.

DOMA, enacted in 1996, departs from more than 200 years of tradition in which the federal government respected the lawful marriages that take place in the states, which issue marriage licenses. Because of the 'gay exception' created by DOMA, America's legally married gay and lesbian couples are denied more than 1,100 federal responsibilities and protections triggered by marriage, including Social Security benefits, the ability to pool resources without adverse tax treatment, family unity under immigration laws, and access to health coverage and pensions. For gay and lesbian service members, DOMA means they and their families are denied equal access to housing, health care, and survivors' benefits - just to name a few. And because of DOMA, their employer - the military - is prevented from doing what it knows is best for unit cohesion and morale, which is to treat all personnel and their families fairly and equally.

Even while gay and lesbian service members bravely and loyally serve our country, many of them in harm's way, they do not have the same peace of mind that comes with knowing their family is being supported and taken care of back home. When a gay or lesbian service member is injured or killed in action, their spouse is refused the kind of support and coverage provided others who are married; often their spouses are not the first to be notified, because, under DOMA, their marriage is not respected.

When President Obama described the journey of understanding that led him to change his mind and support the freedom to marry, he spoke about the conversations that had opened his heart. Some were with Michelle and their daughters, talking about classmates and their gay parents, and the values of fairness such as the Golden Rule. And some of the conversations the President invoked were the stories service members and their families had shared. The President said:

"When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because they're not able to commit themselves in a marriage...it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that-- I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Following the lead of the First Lady and Dr. Biden, as Americans continue to look for ways to honor and support our military families, one important action they can take is to urge Congress to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA and get the country back to treating marriages - and those who are married - equally.

Lower court rulings have held DOMA unconstitutional, and under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Department of Justice has determined that the law is, per the Constitution's command of equal protection, indefensible. It is time for Congress to act.

This Memorial Day, as we remember those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom, let's also remember the additional price that our gay and lesbian service members and their families pay every day they serve our country under discriminatory law. Let's join forces, take action and make a real commitment to supporting these brave Americans and their families.

Government has no business putting obstacles in the path of those seeking to protect their loved ones, especially when they are the ones defending our country. In the military and throughout America, it is time to end marriage discrimination.