Benefits rules eased on same-sex partners of federal employees

In asking the Supreme Court to rule on the benefits ban in the Defense of Marriage Act, Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli said the nation needs an “authoritative resolution of the question.”
(Evan Vucci, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has made it easier for same-sex domestic partners of federal employees to receive a share of their retirement benefits, while its lawyers seek equal benefits for legally married gay couples in the Supreme Court.

Since 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act has barred federal agencies from recognizing marriages between gay men or lesbians or extending them the benefits due a married couple. But two years ago, President Obama said this barrier did not necessarily extend to unmarried same-sex partners, and he told federal executives to take a close look at the rules to see where equal benefits could be extended.

On Friday, the government announced several such rule changes. It added “same-sex domestic partners” to the small list of those who have an “insurable interest” in a federal employee’s retirement. Retirees can opt to provide an annuity for their survivors. Before the rule change, the list of eligible persons for such an annuity included a spouse or former spouse, but not a same-sex partner.

A second rule change will permit the children of an employee’s same-sex domestic partner to qualify in some instances for a child-care subsidy.

A proposed third rule would allow children of same-sex domestic partners to be covered under the employee’s dental and vision insurance.

“These are small but important steps in the direction of equality,” said Brian Moulton, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign.

Federal law continues to deny health coverage to same-sex partners as well as legally married same-sex couples, although that exclusion is being reconsidered in Congress and in the Supreme Court.

The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would permit the same-sex spouses and partners of federal employees to qualify for equal benefits. A Senate committee approved the bill in May, but it is not likely be taken up by the House.

The Obama administration appealed two cases to the Supreme Court this month, seeking a ruling that would strike down the ban on benefits for the same-sex spouse of a legally married federal employee. In both cases, health benefits were at issue.

Nancy Gill, a postal worker in Massachusetts, sought benefits for her spouse. They were married under Massachusetts law. Ruling in their case in May, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals struck down this part of the Defense of Marriage Act on the grounds it denies married gay couples the equal protection of the laws.

A federal judge in Northern California handed down a similar ruling in the case of Karen Golinski, a staff attorney for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After marrying her female partner in 2008, she sought to enroll her in her health insurance plan.

Obama and his administration have continued to enforce this legal ban on benefits for same-sex couples, citing a duty to “faithfully execute” the law. At the same, Obama and his lawyers have urged the courts to strike down the law as unconstitutional. So, although the administration agrees with the appeals courts’ determination that the benefits ban is unconstitutional, it wants the high court to settle the matter.

In appealing both the Gill and Golinski cases to the Supreme Court, Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli said the nation needs an “authoritative resolution of the question” presented by these cases. These women and “tens of thousands of others are being denied the equal enjoyment of the benefits that federal law makes available to persons who are legally married under state law,” he said.

The justices are likely to take up the cases when they meet again in late September.