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U.S. Won't Enforce Laws Banning VA Benefits For Same-Sex Couples

The Obama administration will stop enforcing two sections of a law that lays out benefits for U.S. veterans. The sections define marriage as between a man and woman and deny legally married same-sex couples Veterans Affairs benefits like health care and disability payments.

The Justice Department had in 2012 decided not to defend the statute in court. On Wednesday, in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, Attorney General Eric Holder explained the executive branch was going a step further.

"I write now to inform you that, in light of subsequent developments and my recommendation, the President has directed the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of sections 101(3) and 101(31) Title 38," Holder wrote. "Decisions by the Executive not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare."

Holder goes on to explain that the decision to allow same-sex couples to apply for benefits was based on a June Supreme Court decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

"Although the Supreme Court did not directly address the constitutionality of the Title 38 provisions in Windsor, the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment," Holder wrote.

This move is one in a series of similar moves from the Obama administration to come in compliance with the United States v. Windsor ruling. Earlier this year, the IRS announced it would treat legally married same-sex couples the same as straight couples, and before that the Pentagon extended full benefits to same-sex spouses of service members and civilian employees.

The announcement also comes after a federal court, last month, ruled that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits. To deny them those benefits, the federal judge ruled, is unconstitutional.

The AP explained:

"The Department of Veterans Affairs denied an application from veteran Tracey Cooper-Harris and her spouse seeking additional money and benefits that married veterans are entitled to receive. Cooper-Harris suffers from multiple sclerosis and receives disability benefits.

"She and Maggie Cooper-Harris got married in California during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex unions were legal in the state. The plaintiffs' attorneys had said previously the couple would receive about $150 more a month in disability payments, and Maggie Cooper-Harris would be eligible for about $1,200 a month in survivor's benefits if her wife died."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.