Colorado senators gave preliminary approval to a bill that would expand state benefits to military veterans discharged from service due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, under past discriminatory policies.
Senate Bill 21-26, the ‘Restoration of Honor Act’ — sponsored by state Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and Rep. David Ortiz of Littleton, both Democrats — would require the state’s Division of Veterans Affairs to expand its programs to include this group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender veterans who received other-than-honorable discharges. Legislative staff presume that SB-26 would apply to a small number of people, so the bill doesn’t include any funding to cover increased costs or workload.
“This issue has a long history,” Moreno said during a Feb. 16 hearing on the bill. Before the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — which prevented service members from openly expressing their LGBT identity — was enacted in 1993, LGBT people were completely barred from serving in the military, under a ban implemented during World War II.
“Over the life of the policy of this issue, over 100,000 service members (nationally) have been discharged from the armed forces because of their gender identity or their sexual orientation,” Moreno said.
The legislation would task the Division of Veterans Affairs with devising a process for determining whether someone is eligible. Veterans with dishonorable discharges would not be included under the bill.
Gov. Jared Polis gave the bill a shout-out during his State of the State address on Feb. 17.
Ensuring “opportunity and justice for all” means “honoring those Coloradans who have bravely served our country … yet been dismissed from the military and prevented from receiving certain state veterans’ benefits because of who they love,” Polis said. “I will be excited to see the Restoration of Honor Act reach my desk.”
Congress’ National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 included a provision allowing veterans who were discharged due to their sexual orientation or gender identity to request that a special board review their records and potentially have their military discharge characterization changed to “honorable” on official paperwork. The process is not automatic, however.
While Colorado’s Division of Veterans Affairs can’t change someone’s discharge characterization, the bill would extend some state benefits to LGBT veterans who were discriminated against in the U.S. military. Colorado provides benefits for veterans through programs such as discounted hunting licenses, access to special license plates from the Division of Motor Vehicles, and in-state college tuition.
Brig. Gen. Laura Clellan, adjutant general of the Colorado National Guard, estimated that Colorado is home to fewer than 700 veterans who would become newly eligible for benefits under the bill.
“Hopefully we can help lead the charge for what would ultimately conclude in the passage of federal legislation,” she said during the hearing.
New York state legislators passed a broader version of Colorado’s Restoration of Honor Act in 2019. In addition to LGBT veterans, that bill also included veterans with general or other-than-honorable discharges due to post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or traumatic brain injury.
SB-26 passed the Colorado Senate on second reading Feb. 18. It’s scheduled for one more vote in the Senate before moving to the House for consideration.