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 Barack 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 short 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.