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Same-sex spouses eligible for Pentagon benefits

WASHINGTON — Same-sex spouses of military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing, and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

The decision follows consultation with the Justice Department and the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

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‘‘It is now the department’s policy to treat all married military personnel equally,’’ Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a memorandum to senior officials at the Pentagon.

The Defense of Marriage Act prohibited the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than between a man and a woman.

In June, the Supreme Court cleared the way for legally married gay couples to be recognized under federal law.

Benefits will be available to same-sex spouses if the service member provides a valid marriage certificate. Earlier plans to provide benefits to unmarried gay partners have been dropped, officials said.

Military personnel in a same-sex relationship who are stationed in a state that does not permit same-sex marriage will be allowed to take leave for travel to a jurisdiction where they can marry legally.

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‘‘This will provide accelerated access to the full range of benefits offered to married military couples throughout the department, and help level the playing field between opposite-sex and same-sex couples seeking to be married,’’ said Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

Same-sex spouses will be eligible for benefits on a retroactive basis if they were legally married before the June 26 Supreme Court decision, according to the announcement.

Entitlements will begin at the date of marriage for those who wed after the ruling.

Gay-rights advocates applauded the Pentagon’s announcement but said their work is not done.

“While this is a huge step forward in making sure our same-sex military spouses have equal access, we still have a long battle ahead of us in making sure all of our LGBT military families have equal protection in all 50 states,” said Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, said the Pentagon’s decision is a big win for fairness and equality.

Shaheen agreed, though, that more needs to be done. She said that until the Department of Veterans Affairs issues a similar announcement, ‘‘I will continue to push forward the Charlie Morgan Act, so that veterans and their families also enjoy the benefits they have rightfully earned and deserve.’’

Shaheen is a cosponsor of the measure, which would expand benefits for same-sex couples. It is named for a New Hampshire National Guard chief warrant officer, Charlie Morgan. Her wife and daughter were denied survivor and other benefits after Morgan’s death from breast cancer early this year.

Morgan crusaded for equal treatment of same-sex military couples.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the administration in a statement this week for providing special leave for gay military personnel.

“Military leave is granted by statute,” he said, “and while there are special provisions in law for adoptions, childbirth, and emergency situations, to my knowledge there are no special provisions for marriage, same-sex or otherwise.

“As I have warned before, this administration is eroding our military’s historical apolitical stance by using it as their activism arm for their liberal social agenda.”

Defense Department officials estimated there are about 8,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard, and Reserves and among military retirees. It is unclear how many of those are married.

A Pentagon ban on gays serving openly in the military was dropped in September 2011.

Material from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.

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