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W.Va. Guard, DOD at odds over same-sex marriage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The spouses of gay and lesbian National Guard members cannot get military ID cards at most National Guard locations in West Virginia, which U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says is a violation of federal law.

The ID cards are necessary to get benefits, such as health care, that all military spouses are entitled to.

The West Virginia National Guard issues ID cards at nine locations across the state, according to its website. Four of those locations -- the four run by the federal government -- are issuing ID cards to same-sex spouses. However, the five state-run facilities are not issuing ID cards to same-sex spouses because of an interpretation of state law.

West Virginia law does not recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

"The problem is the law on the books, West Virginia's law," said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. "The current legal conclusion is that that law prevents these same-sex couples from being processed. Because they're strictly state facilities, the legal conclusion is they fall under state law."

In a speech at the Anti-Defamation League in New York on Thursday, Hagel said West Virginia's interpretation is in violation of federal law.

"All spouses of service members are entitled to [Department of Defense] ID cards and the benefits that come with them, but several states are refusing to issue these IDs to same-sex spouses at National Guard facilities," Hagel said. "Not only does this violate the states' obligations under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they're entitled to."

Hagel did not mention West Virginia by name, but background information sent to reporters by a senior DOD official said West Virginia is one of nine states Hagel was referring to.

Messina said the National Guard is trying to accommodate federal, as well as state law.

"The policy seeks to meet those directives as best we can, acknowledging the laws that exist in West Virginia," he said.

Messina also said he did not know who made the ultimate decision about the state's policy.

There are 35 states, including West Virginia, that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, either in their constitutions or in state code. The Defense Department cited only nine of those states for being in violation of its ID-card provisions.

Since Hagel's speech Thursday night, Indiana, one of the nine, has changed its policy and has begun issuing the IDs at all National Guard locations, according to Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

The DOD twice notified all National Guard locations that they needed to issue ID cards to same-sex spouses, the DOD official said. The first notification was sent June 27, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The second was sent Aug. 15.

ID cards were supposed to be available at all processing stations beginning Sept. 3.

In striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples who are legally married in their states are entitled to federal benefits, like military family benefits, the same as other married couples.

The four federal facilities in West Virginia that are granting ID cards to same-sex spouses are in Charleston, Martinsburg (where there are two) and Sugar Grove. They have processed one application for an ID for a same-sex spouse since Sept. 3, said Lt. Col. Melissa Shade, a Guard spokeswoman.

Shade said the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg processed the ID, but she did not know the date it was processed.

Messina said there have been two other inquiries from service members about ID cards.

One service member at the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston, also a federally run facility, was not given an ID card, but that was because his or her spouse was not present at the time, as is required.

A service member in the Northern Panhandle was directed to a military base in Pittsburgh for help.

In his speech, Hagel said he was directing the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. James Grass, to meet with adjutant generals from each state where ID cards are being denied.

Grass spoke with Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, Friday afternoon. They talked about the situation in West Virginia, but Messina did not know the outcome of the conversation.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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