JACKSON, Mississippi– Gov. Phil Bryant says he has no choice but to reject a soon-to-be-delivered order from the Pentagon for Mississippi to grant same-sex spouses of Army National Guard members the same benefits as other spouses.
Bryant’s stand sets up a showdown with the Pentagon at a time Mississippi is trying to hang on to its military installations and is seeking to show it is a strong partner of the military.
The governor is refusing to lift the state’s Army National Guard ban on spouses in gay marriages being eligible for IDs necessary to obtain benefits — a circumstance Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says he will not abide.
Bryant says he does not have the constitutional authority to lift the ban. “The Mississippi Constitution clearly defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and expressly prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions,” Bryant said through a spokesman.
The state’s stand on same-sex marriage benefits could affect Mississippi’s chances for keeping military bases in a new round of base closings, though Mississippi won’t be alone. Eight other states have taken the same stand and could face the same consequences. The Pentagon has cited Mississippi and the other states as violators of Pentagon policy on issuing ID cards to same-sex spouses of Army National Guard members.
The other states are Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia, the Associated Press reports.
The issue is arising as states with a significant military presence such as Mississippi brace for the likelihood of a new round of military installation shutdowns through a Base Realignment & Closure Commission. Though neither the president nor Congress has fully decided on when the next round of closings will occur, officials in Washington and Mississippi expect a new BRACC in the next couple of years as the nation trims expenditures across the board.
Defense Secretary Hagel sent a strong message Thursday concerning the reluctance of the states to grant benefits to spouses of National Guard members. Specifically, he criticized states that are defying the Pentagon by refusing to allow National Guard facilities to issue ID cards that enable same-sex spouses of military members to claim benefits.
“This is wrong,” Hagel said in a speech in New York reported by the AP.
“Not only does this violate the states’ obligation under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they’re entitled to,” he said.
This is causing division among the military ranks, AP reported Hagel saying.
Oklahoma has taken a particularly hard stance against the military’s same-sex benefits policy. Gov. Mary Fallin ordered her state’s National Guard to stop processing requests, making legally married gay couples apply for benefits on federal facilities such as Tinker Air Force Base. Oklahoma in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting giving benefits of marriage to gay couples.
Hagel said these states’ policies are unfair and ordered the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, to “take immediate action to remedy this situation.”
It was not immediately clear what legal authority Grass has to force the states to change course.
Hagel said he instructed Grass to meet with the adjutants general from the nine states where the ID cards are being denied at state facilities. He said those adjutants general, who work for their states’ governor, “will be expected to comply” with Pentagon policy on this issue.
The American Military Partner Association, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian military members, praised Hagel’s remarks, the AP reported.
“Secretary Hagel has made it clear the National Guard in these few rogue states are failing to live up to their obligations to military families under federal law,” said Stephen Peters, the association’s president. “We applaud him in showing strong leadership by ordering the National Guard in these states to comply and follow lawful direction and DoD policy.”
Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees. It’s unclear how many of those are married. The Pentagon policy on equal access to benefits does not apply to unmarried gay partners of military members.
The question for Mississippi and the other targeted states is whether they are willing to maintain their stands on same-sex marriage benefits at the risk of receiving a lower BRACC rating in the all-important “compatibility” with military policy category.
Mississippi recognized the stakes in the last legislative session when it included $2 million in the 2013 bond issue to ready Mississippi’s military communities for the likelihood of a BRACC return in 2015.
Under BRACC, a panel appointed by the president and approved by Congress selects bases for closing and submits a list to Congress for an up-or-down vote. No changes can be made to the list after submission.
The state’s $2-million allocation is likely to be only a down payment as the intentions of the president, Congress and the Pentagon become clearer.
The state spent a reported $60 million to $65 million in the 2005 round of base closings, an effort that helped to save such Mississippi military mainstays as Keesler Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Meridian, Camp Shelby and Columbus Air Force Base. The state, however, lost a Navy installation in Pascagoula and Air National Guard Air Wing in Meridian.
Even without a formally appointed BRAC panel, key members of Congress from both parties have acknowledged that significant cuts in defense spending, especially in the military’s domestic infrastructure, are ahead.
Manning McPhillips, chief administrative officer of the Mississippi Development Authority, is coordinating the state’s military current installation defense efforts. In an interview earlier this year, he said the state’s main focus will be to enhance the mission of the bases.
In preparation for BRACC, each part of the state that is home to a military installation has a military communities council. Each council sends a representative to a state council chaired by retired Army National Guard Maj. Gen. William “Bill’ Freeman Jr., a Newton County banking executive.