By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will allow same-sex spouses of veterans to receive federal benefits currently only available to heterosexual married couples, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a letter to members of Congress on Wednesday.
The decision comes just over two months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married gay and lesbian couples.
The announcement, which will make the same-sex spouses of veterans eligible for various benefits, including healthcare and survivor benefits, was welcomed by gay rights advocates.
"The Obama administration is doing right by our veterans and faithfully executing the Supreme Court's opinion," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, a group that represents veterans' interests, said his hope is the department "moves quickly to implement this change and begins paying veterans and eligible survivors promptly."
A Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Wednesday's announcement was the latest by the Obama administration on recognition of same-sex marriage following the Supreme Court decision in June to invalidate the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department said the Internal Revenue Service would recognize legally married same-sex couples for federal tax purposes.
Separately, the Department of Homeland Security has said that same-sex marriages will be treated the same as opposite sex marriages in the immigration law context.
In Wednesday's letter to various members of Congress, including Representative John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, Holder notified them of the decision not to enforce the provision of federal law that limits the definition of a veteran's spouse to a member of the opposite sex. The law is separate to DOMA and therefore was not directly affected by the Supreme Court ruling.
Holder said that although the Supreme Court did not address the veterans' benefits law in the DOMA ruling, "the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional."
A legal group that represented House Republicans, including Boehner, who supported DOMA had already said that, as a result of the high court ruling, it would no longer defend the veterans' benefits law, which has been challenged in court by same-sex couples. A spokesman for Boehner did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Last week, a federal judge in California said the law was unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
The Justice Department has said since 2012 it would not defend the law but this was the first time it said it would no longer enforce the law.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley. Additional reporting by Kim Dixon.; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)