WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has decided to extend certain benefits to the spouses of gay and lesbian personnel, according to officials and people notified about the decision, responding to the increasingly vocal appeals of same-sex couples in the military.
The military expects to announce the decision this week.
Officials at the Pentagon would not say which new benefits the department has determined it can extend to same-sex couples without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bars the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex unions. Gay rights advocates have called for benefits including housing privileges, access to base recreational facilities and joint duty assignments for couples in the military.
Legal experts say, however, that the Pentagon will be unable to extend more than 100 benefits while the Defense of Marriage Act remains in place.
The new guidelines will be departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's final imprint on the armed forces. They will also come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken under his relatively short tenure: the rescinding of the ban on openly gay service members and the decision to allow women to serve in combat units.
Military officials have struggled with the flurry of equality dilemmas that have emerged since the ban on openly gay service troops was lifted in September 2011, following congressional repeal of the law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The military "has established a two-tiered system regarding how they treat the haves and have-not families," said Allyson Robinson, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization that has been pressing the Pentagon to expand benefits to same-sex couples. "It's an untenable leadership situation."
Panetta is expected to make the announcement this week, according to a U.S. official and a congressional aide briefed on the decision. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not been made.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment.
Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the department has been conducting a "deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners." She noted that the Defense Department already grants some benefits to same-sex spouses, mainly relating to troop deaths and other emergencies.
Last October, the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a final version of a plan to extend benefits to same-sex couples, according to Robinson, who has informally advised the Pentagon on the issue. The chiefs did not take action on the recommendations at the time, she said, but the issue appears to have gained new momentum in recent months.
Among the driving forces was an increased emphasis at the White House after President Barack Obama's second inauguration, during which he proclaimed: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."
The issue also surfaced during the confirmation hearing of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who has disavowed disparaging remarks he made in 1998 about an openly gay ambassador. Hagel sought to reassure senators during his opening remarks last week, saying he was "fully committed" to implementing the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops and vowing to do "everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members."
Activists and lawmakers who champion gay rights say they recognize that many benefits mandated by federal law will remain unavailable to military gay couples due to the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court next month will hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of the law, which lower courts have struck down. The court will rule on the issue before the end of June.
Still, gay rights activists and lawmakers who have pushed the Pentagon to offer benefits to same-sex couples say the military can take meaningful steps now. These include offering gay spouses military identification cards and access to commissaries and family support programs. The military could also offer same-sex couples transportation privileges for couples stationed abroad, according to those pressing for expanded benefits.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., sent a letter to Panetta co-signed by 25 lawmakers urging him to extend these benefits as a matter of policy.
"As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same-sex spouses and their families," the congressman wrote. "Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens."
The Army has wrestled in recent weeks with a controversy at Fort Bragg, N.C., that has given the issue greater urgency. After a lieutenant colonel's wife was denied membership at the officers' spouses organization in December, ostensibly for not having a military ID, her case made national news. It prompted the Marine Corps to issue a memo saying groups at its bases around the country could not reject prospective members on the basis of sexual orientation.
The spouses group backed down last month, offering the office's wife, Ashley Broadway, full membership. The announcement came the same day Broadway learned she had been named Fort Bragg spouse of the year by Military Spouse magazine.