WASHINGTON – A year after the Supreme Court struck down a law barring federal recognition of gay marriages, the Obama administration granted an array of new benefits Friday to same-sex couples, including those who live in states where gay marriage is against the law.
The new measures range from Social Security and veterans benefits to work leave for caring for sick spouses. They are part of President Barack Obama's efforts to expand whatever protections he can offer to gays and lesbians even though more than half of the states don't recognize gay marriage. That effort has been confounded by laws that say some benefits should be conferred only to couples whose marriages are recognized by the states where they live, rather than the states where they were married.
Aiming to circumvent that issue, the Veterans Affairs Department will start letting gay people who tell the government they are married to a veteran to be buried alongside them in a national cemetery, drawing on the VA's authority to waive the usual marriage requirement.
In a similar move, the Social Security Administration will start processing some survivor and death benefits for those in same-sex relationships who live in states that don't recognize gay marriage. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia currently recognize gay marriage, although court challenges to gay marriage bans are pending in many states.
For Tim Fagen of Fort Collins, Colorado, the implications could be profound. A retired electrical engineer, Fagen receives higher Social Security payments than his 79-year-old partner, Ken Hoole. The two will celebrate their 47th anniversary in August but until now would have been prevented from accessing each other's benefits.
"If I was to die, it would be really significant for Ken," Fagen said in an interview. "Not only is it financially beneficial, but psychologically it's beneficial. It's nice to know that your relationship is recognized."
Meanwhile, the Labor Department said it would start drafting rules making clear that the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to same-sex couples, ensuring that gay and lesbian workers can take unpaid leave to care for a sick spouse.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in a memo to Obama, said the Justice Department has completed its government-wide push to carry out the high court's 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, enabling the federal government to start granting benefits to married same-sex couples. Holder said the impact of that court decision "cannot be overstated."
At the same time, Holder urged Congress to adopt legislation that Democratic lawmakers have proposed that let the VA and Social Security extend benefits to married couples living in non-gay marriage states. Obama was lending his support to those efforts in Congress, the White House said.
"The fact that they're endorsing our legislation will give it a boost," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who wrote the bill altering the state-of-residence requirement for VA benefits.
But opponents of gay marriage argued that the Obama administration is misinterpreting the court's decision by using state of residence as the standard for determining which marriages Washington will recognize.
"This clearly goes beyond the executive branch's authority," said Peter Sprigg of Family Research Council. "The federal government should not put the thumb on the scale in terms of how states define marriage."
The administrative steps mark the latest attempt by Obama to promote social acceptance for gays and lesbians and to ensure they and their relationships enjoy equal treatment under the law. In addition to successfully pushing to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military, the Obama administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act years before the Supreme Court took it up.
And last week, Obama took another step demanded by gay rights advocates when he announced he will sign an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.