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Unmarried couples call for federal benefits, too

State Department policy called ‘a Pandora’s box’

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton won praise in June after pushing to extend to gay and lesbian partners many of the federal benefits traditionally provided to diplomats’ spouses.

Since then, unmarried heterosexual couples have been lining up to ask for benefits too. They have approached the State Department’s personnel office and the diplomats’ union, arguing that they are entitled to equal treatment.

At least one couple has threatened to challenge the rules in court as discriminatory.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for policy on federal workers, is weighing such an extension of benefits, U.S. officials say – to the consternation of conservatives.

“They should have seen this coming,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who had opposed extending benefits to gay people. “It’s a Pandora’s box.”

The family benefits, although a small part of diplomats’ overall benefits package, are important to Foreign Service officers. Benefits include paid travel for the partner to and from overseas posts, visas and diplomatic passports, emergency medical treatment, shipment of household possessions, emergency evacuation in times of danger, and education benefits for minor children.

Health insurance is not included for gay partners, although spouses are covered.

Foreign Service officers contend such help is only fair, especially given the conditions they face in remote and often uncomfortable posts.

But conservatives who oppose easing the rules cite the federal Defense of Marriage Act as a key obstacle. The act, passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton, defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and says that no state shall be required to recognize a gay marriage performed in another state.

“A good argument can be made that even these relatively limited steps violate at least the spirit of the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Peter Sprigg, a fellow at the Family Research Council, which advocates for socially conservative causes.

He said the pressure from unmarried heterosexual couples “illustrates one of our concerns – that once you open the door to anyone other than married couples, you’re beginning a process of the deconstruction of marriage.”

Nationally, almost all public employers who extend benefits to same-sex partners also offer them to unmarried, opposite-sex partners, said Ilse de Veer, a principal in the international consulting group Mercer.

Among employers of all types, both public and private, more than half of those who offer benefits to same-sex partners offer them to opposite-sex partners too, she said.

Those who offer benefits to same-sex partners but not to opposite-sex mates typically base the decision on the argument that heterosexual couples have the option of marriage, de Veer said.