New policy decisions from the Obama administration in the wake of the Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act are providing benefits for gay couples in a way that some observers say is advancing the pace toward national marriage equality.
In the months after the ruling in June, the U.S. government has announced historic decisions in affording the federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples who are legally wed. Shortly after the decision, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management granted spousal health and pension benefits to gay federal employees, and just last week, the Pentagon announced it was implementing the benefits along the same lines for gay U.S. service members.
But to receive these benefits, gay couples must be in legal marriages as opposed to any other form of legally recognized relationship, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships. OPM announced in a series of memos in July couples in these unions aren’t eligible for federal benefits. And part of its rollout for same-sex spousal benefits, the Pentagon granted up to 10 days leave to allow same-sex couples to travel to a marriage-equality state to wed as opposed to honoring domestic partnerships for the purposes of benefits — retracting a pledge earlier in the year to provide them.
These changes mean gay couples living in the seven states that only offer civil unions or domestic partnerships — Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Nevada, Hawaii and Wisconsin — will be left out in the cold in terms of federal benefits unless they travel to a marriage-equality state to wed and return. That doesn’t take into account rules for certain benefits — Social Security, taxes and family and medial leave — that for the time being extend only to legally married gay couples only if they currently reside in a state that recognizes their union and not to those who apply for them in non-marriage equality states.
The Obama administration’s insistence that gay couples be married to receive federal benefits is creating the policy that some observers say is leading the way toward national marriage equality by encouraging more states to adopt marriage rights for gay couples.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, a lesbian and director of social policy and politics for the centrist group known as Third Way, said this approach is an “organized way” to implement he Supreme Court’s decision against DOMA, but may also strategically advance marriage equality. In particular, she said it’ll demonstrate before the state courts hearing marriage equality litigation that civil unions aren’t marriage under the law.
“I think that’s pretty smart for state litigation purposes and also for ease of administration,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “The more we continue to make kind of a second-class status available at the federal level, the harder it’s going to be to take that step to what we all know is the goal. So, I think this is a pretty strategic way to kick things in that direction, whereas if you offer essentially a federal domestic partnership or civil unions, it undermines some of those arguments for why we do need marriage.”
In addition to battling for marriage equality in state courts in New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois, LGBT advocates are pushing ahead with the legislative route for marriage equality in numerous states.
In New Jersey, advocates are seeking to overturn Gov. Chris Christie’s veto, and in Illinois, there’s a push underway to pass same-sex marriage legislation in the State House before the extended legislative session ends on Aug. 30. Lawmakers in Hawaii have also recently also met about passing marriage equality in the Aloha State. Each of these states already has civil unions.
Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a political scientist at the City University of New York, said the Obama administration’s decision to grant benefits only to legally married couples provides an incentive for lawmakers in these states to legalize same-sex marriage.
“The practical political effect of limiting federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples will be substantially to increase the pressure on states like Illinois and New Jersey to embrace marriage equality fully,” Pinello said.
But the prevailing notion among observers is that the Obama administration is extending benefits only to married gay couples because the Windsor decision allotted for that change and any push toward national marriage equality as a result of that implementation is incidental.
Richard Socarides, a gay New York attorney who was an LGBT adviser for former President Clinton, said he thinks the Obama administration is not intending to advance same-sex marriage or to undermine civil unions through its implementation of the DOMA decision.
“Probably neither intentionally,” Socarides said. “Just doing what they think is legally appropriate.”
CUNY’s Pinello similarly said the Obama administration had little room in the way it’s implementing the decision because the majority opinion made no mention of civil unions.
“I don’t think that the Obama administration has much choice in the matter, because Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in U.S. v. Windsor explicitly limits the Court’s decision to marriages,” Pinello said. “Civil unions and domestic partnerships aren’t within the holding of the ruling.”
Asked whether the administration had intended to advance marriage equality through its implementation of the DOMA ruling, a White House official, speaking on condition on anonymity, said the administration “is working to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling in compliance with the law.”
“The president has directed the attorney general to work with the Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision and its implications for federal benefits and obligations are implemented swiftly and smoothly,” the official added.
Still, the administration’s method of enhancing marriage rights for gay couples is a drastic change from President Obama’s declaration as a candidate in 2008 that civil unions “represent the best way to secure that equal treatment,” a position he held before evolving to embrace marriage equality last year.
And implementing the DOMA decision only for married couples doesn’t explain why the Pentagon withdrew domestic partners benefits after pledging to implement them in February. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in the memo last week announcing the implementation of the benefits that domestic partnership benefits are “no longer necessary to remedy the inequity that was caused by Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Christie says couples in civil unions should receive fed’l benefits
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum is Chris Christie, whose recent brief in the New Jersey lawsuit seeking marriage equality, known as Garden State Equality v. Dow, contends civil unions within New Jersey should be included among the unions to which the federal government awards benefits. The argument is made in a brief arguing that the court shouldn’t grant summary judgment in favor of marriage equality in New Jersey.
“The examples are endless,” the brief states. “Suffice it to say that a sizable, but indeterminate, number of the over 1,000 benefits and responsibilities that were inapplicable to civil union couples because of DOMA are now available to them because they are spouses, husbands, wives, widows or widowers under New Jersey law.”
Arguably, his attorney’s brief is shifting the debate another way by encouraging the expansion of civil unions in its argument that states with civil unions should be rewarded with the federal benefits of marriage.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, refuted the assertion of his organization’s sometime ally Christie, saying says marriage equality is the way to go in New Jersey and would clear up any confusion about awarding federal benefits of marriage in the state.
“Civil unions are not the same as civil marriage,” Angelo said. “In the wake of the DOMA decision we said that the focus was going to be on the states and that’s where we’re focused. The Obama administration’s decision to grant federal marriage benefits to gay couples also shows that there are gray areas emerging since the Court overturned Section 3 of DOMA. The best, cleanest, strongest way to ensure benefits is through legislative action.”
Plans are also set for a legislative fix to ensure that couples in domestic partnerships and civil unions can receive certain federal benefits. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) earlier this month introduced the Social Security Equality Act, which in addition to clarifying that married gay couples nationwide should receive Social Security benefits would also ensure they flow to couples in civil unions.
Additionally, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is expected to soon reintroduce the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act — and the new version, according to a House aide in his office, is slated to provide gay federal employees in civil unions or domestic partnerships, like those in Wisconsin, with the federal benefits of marriage.
As this discussion is underway, the Human Rights Campaign is arguing that the federal benefits of marriage in some circumstances — notably Social Security benefits — should be available to gay couples in civil unions if they’re living in a state that recognizes them as spouses.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said his organization is pursuing a dual track advocating for marriage equality in all 50 states as it pushes for federal recognition of civil unions for certain benefits.
“Under most federal laws, benefits are designed to flow to married couples, which is why civil unions and domestic partnerships have always been insufficient,” Cole-Schwartz said. “The issue is that marriage needs to be available to couples in every state so that no couple is denied recognition from the federal government. However there are cases where if a state recognizes a member of a civil union as a spouse under state law, federal benefits can flow to that person. We are advocating that those benefits be available to couples in civil unions and we await further guidance from federal agencies as to their plans for those situations.”