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Activists condemn Oklahoma barriers to same-sex military couples' benefits

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A national military gay rights group said on Wednesday it will petition the U.S. Defense Department to pressure national guard units in Oklahoma and three other southern states to comply with a federal directive granting benefits to same-sex couples.

The American Military Partner Association said it was "extremely disappointed" to learn this week that Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin had ordered the Oklahoma National Guard to stop processing benefit requests for same-sex couples.

Fallin, who is commander in chief of the Oklahoma Guard, said the requests go against the state's same-sex marriage ban.

"Her legal argument is full of holes," said Chris Rowzee, spokeswoman for National Guard affairs for AMPA. "National Guards are not solely state entities; they are a joint entity with the federal government."

The association is joining the American Civil Liberties Union to pressure the Defense Department on the issue. Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana also have denied the federal directive on same-sex couples benefits, according to the ACLU.

The state's actions don't rule out benefits for same-sex military couples, since they can have applications processed at federal military installations. But the states are creating "needless, discriminatory roadblocks" that will require couples to travel miles out of their way, according to the ACLU.

Oklahoma National Guard Colonel Max Moss said requests can't go through state employees, so Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen cannot process the requests. If a soldier or airman requests the benefits, he or she would be referred to a federal military installation like Tinker Air Force Base or Fort Sill.

Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 that prohibits same-sex marriage or giving benefits of marriage to gay couples. The state does not recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states.

Oklahoma's National Guard processed two requests before the September 6 directive from the governor but has not received any requests since, Moss said.

Oklahoma's stance goes against a February 11 directive from the U.S. defense secretary that marriage benefits be granted to same-sex domestic partners in the military. It went into effect on September 3, following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June finding the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

The Oklahoma National Guard has more than 9,000 guardsmen and airmen.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Cynthia Osterman)

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