Florida Guard asks: Can gay soldiers’ spouses sign up for benefits at state offices?

09/09/2013 5:44 PM

09/12/2013 11:52 AM

A week after the Pentagon began processing the spouses of gay troops as equally eligible for federal benefits, the Florida National Guard has yet to decide whether it will embrace the policy or follow the path of Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana and refuse to enroll same-sex spouses.

At issue is not whether the legally married gay spouses of Florida National Guard troops can receive federal benefits. They can.

The question is whether, because the Florida Constitution forbids gay marriage, the Florida National Guard armories and other outposts will refuse to process gay husbands and wives just like heterosexual spouses. If so, gay Guard members would have to go to federally controlled military bases in the state — such as the U.S. Southern Command in Doral or Homestead Air Reserve base — to sign up their spouses.

“The matter has been submitted to Tallahassee for legal review to ensure that the Florida Department of Military Affairs is in compliance with Florida law,” Florida’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Emmett R. Titshaw Jr., told the Miami Herald in response to an email inquiry Monday.

Florida voters in 2008 adopted a state constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and woman.

Both Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and invalidating California’s ban on gay marriage, changed nothing for gays in the Sunshine State.

But the Defense Department announced Aug. 14 that, starting Sept. 3, it was extending health and housing allowance benefits to spouses of same-sex marriages who “provide a valid marriage certificate.” Now the Florida Guard has sought an advisory opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

“We received a letter from Maj. Gen. Titshaw Jr. today,” spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said, “and we are currently reviewing it.”

So far, no gay couple had come to “a state facility” in Florida seeking the benefits, said Air Force Lt. Col. James Evans, spokesman for the Florida Guard in St. Augustine.

“No one’s been turned away,” he said. “because no one’s come to ask.”

Titshaw said there was no way to know how many of the nearly 12,000 Florida Guard families might be eligible because “we currently have no mechanism for tracking same-sex marriages within the Florida National Guard.”

Meantime, “the many federal military facilities in the state can provide enrollment until we receive clarification,” the general said.

Titshaw’s decision to seek an advisory opinion from the state reflects a more cautious approach than other southern states.

The National Guard commanders of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have already refused to process their gay troops’ spouses, citing the state constitution’s ban on gay marriage. In response, Rose Richeson at the Pentagon’s National Guard Bureau said same-sex wives and husbands in those three states were being told to go to regular federal military posts in their state to sign up.

At U.S. Naval Air Station Key West, public affairs officer Trice Denny said four same-sex couples filed applications for benefits in the first week.

None were with the Florida National Guard.

At the U.S. Southern Command, garrison spokesman Art McQueen said the personnel department also enrolled some same-sex married spouses, “none however from the Florida National Guard.”

“We are in compliance with the Department of Defense Directive to treat all married couples the same,” he added, noting that Guard members would be welcome to enroll at the outpost in Doral just like retirees can use the services.

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