Although the Supreme Court did not directly address the constitutionality of the veterans benefits provisions, the reasoning of the opinion "strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional," Holder wrote.
The Justice Department has been tapped by the White House to ensure that couples in same-sex marriages receive all federal benefits to which they are entitled. The Social Security Administration says it has started processing spousal retirement claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits. Last week, the government said that all legally married gay couples will be able to file joint federal tax returns even if they reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages.
Many of the changes are relatively easy to make because they involve federal regulations, but the veterans benefits present a more difficult issue because that prohibition is part of federal law.
"Continued enforcement would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health care, home loan and other benefits," Holder wrote.
Because of the way federal law on the Department of Veterans Affairs is worded, Wednesday's announcement does not apply to same-sex couples who live in a state that does not recognize gay marriage. Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said the issue is under review.
A gay rights group says it's a problem. "We would like to see the Department of Veterans Affairs adopt a standard where the agency accepts a valid marriage license from any jurisdiction," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political organization.
"There's no reason to treat veterans who live in one state differently than veterans who happen to live in a state that doesn't recognize them," Cole-Schwartz said.