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Topics In the News
SPLC Files Suit to Overturn DOMA
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 02/02/12
Last updated on: 02/02/12
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Tracy Cooper-Harris (left) with Maggie, her wife.

On February 1, 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced that it had filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The suit, known as Cooper-Harris v. United States, was filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, on behalf of Tracy Cooper-Harris and Maggie Cooper-Harris.

Tracey Cooper-Harris, a highly decorated veteran of the United States Army, served her country for 12 years, including multiple deployments in Kuwait and Iraq. She trained and provided care for military animals in the war theater, such as explosives-sniffing dogs. She was honorably discharged in 2003.

In 2008, Cooper-Harris and her spouse Maggie wed in California, during the period when same-sex marriage was legal in the state.

In 2010, Cooper-Harris was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disabling disease that attacks the brain and central nervous system. The Department of Veterans Affairs denied Cooper-Harris' request for benefits for her partner, even though their same-sex marriage was recognized by California.

The regional VA medical center determined that Cooper-Harris's illnesses are "service-related," and she has been collecting benefits since the diagnosis, but at the lesser rate paid to single veterans. In her lawsuit, she notes that in the event of her death her surviving spouse will not be entitled to receive the compensation that would be paid if she were married to someone of the opposite sex, nor would she and her spouse be entitled to be buried next to each other in a military cemetery.

"There is a good likelihood that multiple sclerosis will cause my death, and I just want to make sure that whatever benefits are available, that Maggie gets them if I do die," Cooper-Harris told the Los Angeles Times.

The SPLC's suit on behalf of Tracey and Maggie Cooper-Harris alleges that the Department of Veterans Affairs discriminated against them by denying them benefits while granting them to spouses in heterosexual marriages. It also argues that DOMA is unconstitutional because it bans federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages, thus denying these couples benefits available to couples in heterosexual marriages.

Cooper-Harris v. United States joins other suits challenging the constitutionality of DOMA that are currently wending their way through the maze of the federal court system. Among these are In the Matter of Karen Golinski, Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, Pederson v. Office of Personnel Management, and Windsor v. United States.

The SPLC was founded by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin, Jr. in 1971. It is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.

The organization is known both for its landmark legal challenges to institutionalized racism and for its vigilance in tracking and exposing the activities of hate groups, including those who incite hatred of glbtq people.

SPLC's complaint may be found here: CooperHarris.pdf.

In this video, SPLC co-founder Joseph Levin, Jr. and SPLC Deputy Legal Director Christine Sun explain the lawsuit.

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