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Same-sex spouses to begin getting Veterans Affairs benefits

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday escalated its effort to dismantle federal barriers to same-sex marriages, announcing the Department of Veterans Affairs would immediately begin giving spousal benefits to gay men and lesbians despite a federal statute that limits such benefits to veterans’ spouses who are “of the opposite sex.”

In letters to congressional leaders, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that President Obama had directed the executive branch to stop obeying the statute because it had decided that it was unconstitutional in light of a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down a similar law, a part of the Defense of Marriage Act. “Decisions by the Executive not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare,” Holder wrote. “Nevertheless, for the reasons described below, the unique circumstances presented here warrant nonenforcement.”

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After the Supreme Court ruling, many agencies — the Pentagon and the Internal Revenue Service among them — have been rewriting their regulations to define marriage in gender-neutral terms. Last month the military announced that the same-sex spouses of active-duty personnel would receive similar family and spousal benefits, including housing allowances.

But the VA is in a different situation because Congress codified its definition of who was eligible for spousal benefits as a statute.

Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said last month in a letter released by Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat, that his agency was struggling with the question of providing benefits to surviving spouses because the statutory language defining “spouse” was slightly different from the law that the court had struck down.

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