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Washington - The Pentagon on Monday expanded benefits to same-sex partners of military personnel to include a range of services offered at posts and bases, but withheld more expansive benefits sought by gay and lesbian couples - in particular medical and dental coverage and housing allowances.
The new benefits are to become available to same-sex partners of military personnel as soon as Aug. 31 and no later than Oct. 1. They include receiving military identification cards, akin to those offered to any dependent but that will be encoded to reflect a domestic partnership.
New privileges would include access to commissaries, gymnasiums, movie theaters and family support programs on bases and posts.
Full benefits would require repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The Pentagon lifted the ban on openly gay men and lesbians serving in the military but cannot recognize their marriages, even if they are legal in some states, because military personnel are federal employees covered by DOMA.
"Additional benefits, such as health care and housing allowances, are by statute currently only available to spouses and therefore cannot be made available to same-sex domestic partners of service members under current law," Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in a letter released by the Pentagon.
"In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the department to construe the words 'spouse' and 'marriage' without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits," he added.
Criticism came immediately from Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who released a statement saying, "Once again, the president is eroding our military's apolitical stance and forcing conformity onto the rest of society by pushing his liberal social agenda through the Department of Defense." He said the decision "will increase costs and demand for limited resources that are currently available for military families, active and reserve forces, and retirees."
Gay rights organizations endorsed the announcement but stressed that steps remain to ensure that all service personnel are treated equally.
"The Pentagon took a historic step forward toward righting the wrong of inequality in our armed forces, but there is still more work to be done," said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign.