Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta signed an order Monday permitting… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has agreed to expand benefits for gay and lesbian couples serving in the military, but officials continued to withhold equal access to base housing, healthcare and educational services.
Leon E. Panetta, the outgoing secretary of Defense, signed an order Monday that permits same-sex partners and their dependents to use numerous family-oriented facilities and services on U.S. military bases, including recreation areas, counseling programs, school buses, child care and shopping exchanges.
The order grants same-sex couples the right for the first time to request assignment to the same post or duty station if both serve in the military. It also allows partners to receive pay and other benefits if one is taken prisoner or is missing in action.
The move comes less than a month after President Obama used his second inaugural address to embrace equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans. Three days later, Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, announced they were lifting the ban on female soldiers and Marines serving in most ground combat units.
The changes stop far short of full equalization of benefits for same-sex couples in the military.
The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, effectively barred same-sex couples in the military from the most generous federal benefits, including free or reduced-cost medical services, and tuition assistance. The law defines marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman.
The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments next month in a case that challenges the law as unconstitutional.
But Pentagon officials cited additional obstacles to guaranteeing same-sex couples equal access to base housing as other married couples. They said the issue remained under review.
Speaking at a news briefing, Defense officials said they worried that heterosexual couples and their families might be denied housing on some bases if same-sex couples were allowed to apply.
"One of the concerns was, 'I'm married and now I'm going to be bumped by this person who is not married,'" said one official, citing a military housing shortage. The officials spoke to reporters on condition they not be identified.
Panetta's order also does not allow a same-sex partner to request his or her partner's burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
In addition, the spouse of a heterosexual service member being deployed overseas can seek help obtaining a visa, may have access to medical facilities and has legal immunity for some laws in foreign jurisdictions. Those benefits will not be available to same-sex couples.
Under the order, gay and lesbian service members may file a form with the Defense Department that declares they are in a "domestic partnership," defined as a "committed relationship between two adults of the same sex."
It will take several months to update computer software to permit same-sex partners to receive military identification cards, officials said, but the new benefits must be available by Oct. 1.
Officials said the cost of the expanded benefits would be negligible at a time when the Pentagon faces potentially deep budget cuts. They cited estimates that 5,600 same-sex couples are on active duty, 3,400 serve in the National Guard and Reserves, and 8,000 are retirees.
Gay rights groups applauded the latest move, but critics said the administration was circumventing the Defense of Marriage Act.
"Today, 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, a gay rights organization.
"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," said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Panetta, who is expected to leave the Pentagon this month, vowed when he first took the job in 2011 to study additional steps to equalize benefits. Aides said Monday he wanted to fulfill that promise before he stepped down.
His likely successor, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, promised at his confirmation hearing last month to pursue expanded benefits for gay and lesbian service members.
The Senate Armed Services Committee was expected to vote Tuesday to recommend Hagel be confirmed, but several Republican senators planned to delay a vote on his confirmation.