The large number of federal government employees in the D.C. metropolitan area will ensure that many same-sex married couples living in the region, including those living in Virginia, will soon receive full federal benefits and rights that come with marriage in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
According to local attorneys familiar with family law, the Obama administration has taken immediate steps to direct the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to provide all federal marriage benefits to government workers and their same-sex spouses.
“Certainly for federal civil servants there will be a clear effort from the administration to allow people who marry anywhere to take advantage of their federal civil service benefits regardless of where they currently live,” said Takoma Park, Md., attorney Susan Silber, whose law firm has represented lesbian and gay couples on matters pertaining to family law.
“So that’s huge for our metropolitan area,” she said. “And it will be huge for people who live in places like Virginia and West Virginia and Pennsylvania” where many federal workers live.
Silber and local attorney Michelle Zavos, who, like Silber, represents LGBT clients in the D.C. metro area, said following the DOMA decision, same-sex couples can expect support in their quest to obtain both state and federal marriage benefits from state officials in D.C., Maryland and Delaware, where same-sex marriage is legal.
But the two attorneys said most of those benefits won’t come automatically and same-sex married couples in the three jurisdictions must come forward to apply for the benefits.
“This is something they have to do proactively,” Zavos told the Blade. “And what I would say is federal workers, especially, need to contact their Human Resources Department immediately to find out what they need to do. They cannot sit on this.”
Zavos noted that similar to any married employee, both federal and private sector employees need to inform their employer through the personnel or human resources department that they are married and will qualify for benefits such as health insurance for their spouse.
In the case of the federal government, enrollment in such benefits often becomes available only during an “open enrollment” period once a year. However, OPM officials have said the federal personnel agency was expected to schedule another open enrollment period in the coming weeks in light of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning DOMA.
Silber, Zavos and other attorneys familiar with Virginia said they were watching closely as Obama administration officials assess ways to extend federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples who legally marry in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage but live in states that do not recognize such marriages.
In the week since the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, legal experts have said some federal benefits linked to marriage, such as Social Security survivor benefits, are tied to the state where a couple lives rather than the state where the couple married.
Claire Gastanaga, an attorney who serves as general legislative counsel for the statewide LGBT group Equality Virginia, said the question of whether a federal marriage benefit is available to same-sex married couples living in Virginia must be decided by the federal government, not by Virginia state officials.
“It’s really a question of how they choose to interpret the federal law,” Gastanaga said. “There are a thousand different federal laws. Some of them refer to the place of celebration [of the marriage] and some refer to the domicile of the couple,” she said.
“Some of those requirements are statutory, some are regulatory and some are policy,” she added. “So there’s lots to be ironed out at the federal level before we know the answer to that question.”
Adam Ebbin, the gay Virginia state senator representing a district in the Alexandria area, said that while Virginia’s current governor and attorney general are unsympathetic to LGBT issues and oppose marriage equality, any state elected official would be restricted in taking steps to extend benefits to married same-sex couples under an anti-gay marriage amendment passed by voters in 2006, despite the DOMA decision.
“The Virginia marriage amendment, which is part of our state constitution, says the state can’t recognize or grant benefits of marriage for same-sex couples,” Ebbin said. “So the state’s hands are tied until we change the constitution.”
Ebbin said the momentum in support of marriage equality generated by the Supreme Court decision overturning DOMA would have a “major” impact on efforts in Virginia to repeal the same-sex marriage ban.