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Pasadena same-sex couple sues VA over benefits

(Courtesy: Southern Poverty…)
February 01, 2012

A gay Pasadena woman who served as an Army sergeant in the Middle East filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday, alleging the Defense of Marriage Act violates her civil rights.

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FOR THE RECORD:  An earlier version of this story stated Cooper-Harris trained dogs for combat. In fact, she trained dogs for support in combat operations. 

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Tracey Cooper-Harris, 38, suffers from multiple sclerosis and is suing for her wife to receive military benefits typically granted to spouses of disabled veterans.

Cooper-Harris was an Army animal care specialist who did veterinary work with military dogs in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was on active duty from 1991 to 1999 and was redeployed to Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan in 2002 and 2003.

She and Maggie Cooper-Harris married in 2008. Their marriage is legally recognized in California despite ongoing legal wrangling over Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban approved by voters later that year.

“We got married for the same reason other people do — to show our love and commitment for each other and make sure we have somebody with us through good times and bad,” said Tracey Cooper-Harris. “When I was diagnosed [in 2010], I freaked out a little bit. I wanted to get all my end-of-life stuff in order and make sure Maggie was taken care of before something happened to me.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied spousal support and death benefits to the couple in May 2011. The agency defines a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a wife or a husband.”

Even if the VA changed its policy, the federal government still would not recognize the couple’s marriage under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, said Randall Lee, an attorney for Cooper-Harris.

The lawsuit, against the VA and the Department of Justice, argues that the VA policy and the Defense of Marriage Act discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual orientation in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

“When she put on her uniform, her sexual orientation didn’t matter,” said Lee, formerly regional director for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Los Angeles. “There is no legitimate reason why the federal government should provide fewer benefits to our clients than it does for heterosexual veterans and their spouses.”

Other pending cases challenge the Defense of Marriage Act, but this is the first from Los Angeles. The Obama administration has said it will not defend the law, but members of the House of Representatives have directed the House Office of General Counsel to do so.

Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris met before Tracey’s Middle East deployment as members of opposing women’s rugby teams — Tracey for Claremont College and Maggie for Occidental College. The two started dating in 2005 and have lived in Pasadena since that time.

Tracey Cooper-Harris said she remains intensely patriotic despite her frustrations.

“Our country has had issues with equal rights in the past over gender and race, and they have done things to correct those problems,” said Cooper-Harris, who is African-American. “This is the same thing. It’s something that needs to be brought to their attention and needs to be corrected.”

--Joe Piasecki, Times Community News

@joepiasecki

 Photo: Tracey Cooper-Harris, right, and wife Maggie Cooper-Harris celebrate after their 2008 wedding in Los Angeles. Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center

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