National Guard Sites To Take Same-sex Benefit Form

By Melinda Deslatte

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana National Guard personnel seeking benefits for same-sex spouses will have an easier time filing the requests, despite a state refusal to let its workers process the paperwork because of Louisiana's ban on gay marriage.

National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Kazmierzak said Thursday that federal employees will handle benefit enrollment requests for same-sex couples at Guard sites around Louisiana, so service members don't have to travel to federal military installations for processing.

The change hinges on the status of employees handling the benefit paperwork.

Kazmierzak said the U.S. Property and Fiscal Officer in Louisiana, who handles federal property and federal financing for the state National Guard, will move some Guard employees to federal personnel status to deal with the benefit enrollments.

It's an employment classification tweak that allows state officials to say their employees aren't violating a state prohibition of gay marriage, but that also puts Louisiana in line with a Pentagon directive issued in September permitting same-sex benefits for service members.

"State officials will still follow the state constitution as we always have. We have worked with the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau to help them come up with a federal solution to their federal program," Kazmierzak said.

Approved by lawmakers and voters in 2004, the Louisiana Constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman and declares a legal status of marriage for any other couples "shall not be valid or recognized."

"No Louisiana National Guard personnel will be asked to violate the Louisiana Constitution," Kazmierzak said.

Because of that constitutional provision, the Louisiana National Guard previously had been requiring people seeking same-sex benefits to file the paperwork with eight federal military installations around the state for processing.

The requirement in some instances forced long trips to the closest site for service members in same-sex couples to get the services granted to heterosexual married couples, like access to base commissaries, medical care and housing allowances.

Gay rights organization Equality Louisiana said the change that allows the benefit requests to be filed at National Guard installations puts Louisiana in line with 46 other states.

"This is a great day for married National Guard members in our state, and another small step down the road to equality for all married couples," Matthew Patterson, research and policy coordinator for Equality Louisiana, said in a statement Thursday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had chastised states that were not allowing registration at National Guard sites, saying he would not tolerate state-employed officials refusing to treat all members of the military equally.

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