In a policy reversal, the Oklahoma National Guard will no longer process benefit requests from same-sex couples after being notified by Gov. Mary Fallin's office that doing so violates state law banning gay marriage.
Oklahoma now joins Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana as the only states that have publicly said they will limit how and where such couples can register for benefits, despite a recent Pentagon directive that gay couples be treated equally. Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen seeking such benefits are now being told they can apply at federal facilities, such as Tinker Air Force Base or Fort Sill, but not at state-run facilities manned by state employees.
After a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June threw out the Defense of Marriage Act, the U.S. Department of Defense in August announced that it would recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal. Sept. 3 was the first working day that gays in the military could apply for such benefits, including health care coverage, housing allowances and survivor benefits.
Initially, the Oklahoma National Guard said as long as a soldier seeking benefits for their same-sex partner presented a marriage certificate or license, the claim would be treated as it would for any other soldier. The guard processed two same-sex requests before being notified by Gov. Fallin's general counsel Sept. 6 that the state constitution prohibited such actions.
“Because of that legal prohibition, Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen will not process requests for same-sex benefits,” Guard spokesman Col. Max Moss said Tuesday. The guard has received no requests since being notified of the policy change.
Asked to comment on the policy reversal, a Fallin spokesman cited the 2004 election that amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The measure, which received 75 percent voter support, also prohibited giving marriage benefits to people who are not married, spokesman Alex Weintz said.
“It is therefore prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution for National Guardsmen, or other state employees or entities, to process benefits for gay couples,” Weintz wrote in an email.
Officials in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, also citing state laws banning gay marriage, also have said they won't issue applications from state-owned offices, but instead are directing guard members to federal installations. Officials in 11 other states that ban gay marriage have said they will follow federal law and process all couples seeking benefits the same, according to the Associated Press.
Stephen Peters, president of American Military Partner Association, which advocates for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people in the armed forces, called Oklahoma's reversal “very unfortunate.”
The Washington-based organization recently launched a joint petition with the American Civil Liberties Union calling on the Defense Department to reaffirm that all married military personnel must be treated equally, and that National Guards cannot choose to ignore the order by denying same-sex military couples equal access to the benefits to which they are entitled.
“It just shows the Defense Department is going to have to take action and tell these state national guards that they can't use federal funds to discriminate. That's essentially what they're doing,” Peters said.
Mike Redman, advocacy chair for Oklahomans for Equality, a Tulsa-based gay rights group, said the different way same-sex couples are being treated, “underscores the inherent unfairness of Gov. Fallin's policies.”
It's also an example of why Oklahoma's constitutional provision banning gay marriage violates the U.S Constitution's equal protection and due process clauses, Redman said.
“You have two lawfully married couples being treated differently,” Redman said. “I strongly encourage Gov. Fallin and other leaders to look at that disparity in treatment in these policies and justify that disparity when the Supreme Court says it's unequal and not appropriate.”