Peters Announces Bipartisan Legislation to Update VA’s Definition of Marriage to Recognize Same-Sex Marriage for Veterans, Ensure Veterans & Their Families Can Access Benefits

WASHINGTON, DC – As we celebrate Pride Month, U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI) announced bipartisan legislation to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to update the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples  – ensuring no veteran or their family is denied access to the benefits they earned while serving our country.

Under current law, the VA defines “spouse” and “surviving spouse” as a person “of the opposite sex.” In 2013, then-President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order directing the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of this discriminatory definition and as a result, the VA began administering spousal and survivors’ benefits to same-sex married couples. However, the VA’s definition of spouse for the purpose of receiving benefits was never legally changed, despite the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor that defining “spouse” in a way that prohibits the recognition same-sex marriages violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This ruling meant that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as married opposite sex couples. Peters’ Veterans Marriage Recognition Act – which he introduced with Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – would update and codify the definition of “spouse” to reflect same-sex couples’ rights, strengthening the legal path for same-sex couples to receive VA benefits. Peters’ legislation would ensure the federal code reflects the progress we have made and provide legal protection in the case that the Supreme Court overturns United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which held in 2015 that the right to marry for same-sex couples is guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Senate has never passed legislation to formally update the VA statute to reflect the Supreme Court ruling and recognize same-sex veteran spouses in law.

“Every veteran – no matter who they love – should be able to access the VA benefits and resources they have earned through their service,” said Senator Peters, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to ensure the VA legally recognizes same-sex marriage and does not deny these veterans or their spouses their benefits. This recognition is long overdue, and I will be working to pass this commonsense legislation in the Senate.”

“Spouses of active duty service members are the unsung heroes of our country’s national defense, often putting their personal and professional lives on hold to support their families and their loved ones in uniform,” said Senator Collins. “This long-overdue update to the VA’s definition of marriage in the federal code to include same-sex couples will ensure that veteran spouses – regardless of their sexual orientation – receive the spousal and survivors’ benefits to which they are entitled.” 

“Every veteran should have access to the health care and benefits that they have earned and deserve, no matter their zip code, their income – or who they love,” said Senator Hassan. “This Pride Month, I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing legislation to ensure that the VA recognizes same-sex couples. Veterans and military families sacrifice so much for our country, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to strengthen support for veterans.”

“I’m committed to supporting all of Alaska’s veterans. That includes ensuring all veterans, their spouses, and their families have equal opportunities to access the benefits they have earned and that Federal statutes reflect the law of the land,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski. “I’m proud to help lead the Veterans Marriage Recognition Act, which will update U.S. Code to strike outdated terminology and protect access to benefits for all veterans and their spouses. This is a positive step towards a more inclusive VA.”

“The Palm Center applauds the legislation updating VA’s language on military families,” said Aaron Belkin, Director of the Palm Center, an independent research institute that studies U.S. military personnel policy. “The revision is consistent with the requisites of military readiness and with our nation’s commitment to treating all our veterans and their families equally.”

Peters’ Veterans Marriage Recognition Act builds on his long record of fighting to end discrimination and advocating for Michigan’s servicemembers and veterans. Peters is a proud cosponsor of the Equality Act – which would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity across the board – including in education, employment, housing and the judicial system. Peters also voted in favor of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to ensure no American is turned away from serving their country simply because of who they are. Additionally, Peters is a cosponsor of the Refund Equality Act which ensures legally-married same-sex couples can file amended tax returns back to the date of their marriage.

Last year, Peters was inducted into the Michigan Military and Veterans Hall of Honor for his efforts to support our nation’s veterans and military. In 2017, Peters was recognized as Legislator of the Year by the Vietnam Veterans of America for authoring the bipartisan Fairness for Veterans Act, which was signed into law. The legislation requires veteran discharge review boards to give liberal consideration to petitions for honorable discharge status if the servicemember has been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI or other related conditions connected to their military service. As of the fall of 2020, more than 1,500 veterans have had their discharges upgraded since his legislation was enacted. Last year, Peters’ bipartisan bill to strengthen transparency and communication for veterans and caregivers participating in the VA’s caregiver program was enacted into law. Also, Peters’ bipartisan legislation to expand apprenticeship opportunities for veterans and allow them to use their GI bill benefits to secure a registered apprenticeship was signed into law in 2020. Peters also fought for and helped secure a measure in the national defense bill to expand the Department of Veterans’ Affairs list of medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure to include bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism.

Peters additionally passed out of the Senate his bipartisan CADETS Act to expand the Student Incentive Payment Program eligibility age for financial assistance to cadets who attended one of the six State Maritime Academies and commit to a post-graduation service obligation to include any qualified student who will meet the age requirements for enlistment in the U.S. Navy Reserve at their time of graduation. In return for their commitment to serve, cadets can receive up to $32,000 in this incentive payment funding over four years to help offset the cost of tuition, uniforms, books, and living costs.