June 23, 2014 at 8:03 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Praise, calls for more action after DOMA ruling review
Eric Holder, Tammy Baldwin, Melissa Etheridge, United States Department of Justice, United States Senate, Democratic Party, Wisconsin, gay news, Washington Blade, LGBT Pride

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday the conclusion of the administration’s review of the DOMA decision (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key).

As the one-year anniversary approaches of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against the Defense of Marriage Act, the Justice Department’s interpretation of the ruling is inspiring mixed reactions among LGBT advocates, but most are happy with the results so far.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in the form of a memo to President Obama the Justice Department has finished its year-long review of the Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of DOMA, a law that prohibited recognition of same-sex marriages at the federal level.

The DOMA decision, which was handed down alongside the Supreme Court’s ruling on California’s Proposition 8 on June 26, 2013, will see its one-year anniversary on Thursday. Some advocates say they’re happy with the administration’s interpretation of the decision, and others want more action in terms of support with litigation and legislation.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, praised Obama for his “unparalleled leadership,” but called on him to support litigation to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples nationwide.

“Today’s announcement that same-sex spouses in states that refuse to respect their marriages will be denied the Social Security benefits they have paid for and earned, and that LGBT veterans who have served this country will be treated as second-class citizens, underscores how far we have yet to go to achieve true equality,” Kendell said. “We call on the administration to redouble its efforts to stand up for these families and to support litigation to challenge discriminatory and unconstitutional state laws that exclude same-sex couples and their children from the protections of marriage.”

The administration has afforded many benefits to married same-sex couples following the decision last year, ensuring they flow to gay couples regardless of whether they live in a jurisdiction where same-sex marriage is legal. Among those were benefits related to immigration, taxes, employer-provided pensions and federal employee benefits.

But in the memo, Holder says the Justice Department concluded as part of its review it cannot extend certain Social Security and veterans benefits to these couples if they live in one of 31 states where same-sex couples cannot legally marry.

Because federal law governing certain Social Security and veterans benefits looks to the place of residence, not the place of celebration, in determining whether a couple is married, the administration determined Congress must pass additional legislation to extend these benefits to married same-sex couples living in non-marriage equality states.

Despite the denial of these benefits, most LGBT advocates praised the Obama administration for its response to the court’s ruling.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, gave the Obama administration a grade of “A” for the extension of benefits to married same-sex couples.

“The U.S. Attorney General and the administration deserves an ‘A’ grade for their efforts to fully implement the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, a long list of changes that deeply and positively impacts the lives of millions of same-sex couples and their families,” Carey said. “Moreover, it speaks volumes about the values of inclusion and diversity that underpins President Obama’s approach to delivering freedom and justice for all Americans.”

Also happy on the day the completion of the review was announced was Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work.

On Friday, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez announced his department is issuing a new rule to ensure individuals in same-sex marriages can take leave from an employer to care for a spouse under the Family & Medical Leave Act. This new rule builds off an earlier announcement that this benefit would be available in the wake of the DOMA decision, but only for same-sex couples applying for the benefit in states with marriage equality.

Almeida, who had pushed the administration to make the rule change, said the new policy “will let employers in all 50 states know that gay and lesbian married couples must be treated with respect when they seek workplace leave to take care of a same-sex spouse that gets into an accident or is diagnosed with an illness.

“There is no doubt that this administration has already done and continues to do more to promote LGBT fairness than any other in our nation’s history,” Almeida concluded.

Certain benefits won’t extend to gay couples

But that sense of satisfaction wasn’t shared by everyone, particularly LGBT groups that were pressuring the Obama administration to enforce Social Security and veterans laws in such a way that married same-sex couples could receive related benefits in non-marriage equality states.

Vickie Henry, a staff attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, expressed general satisfaction with the implementation of the DOMA decision, but acknowledged her group had previously said all Social Security benefits should flow to married same-sex couples regardless of where they live.

“We have advocated with the White House and the Department of Justice that there was room for them to interpret the Social Security Act to allow the extension of benefits,” Henry said. “They’ve reached the conclusion that they’ve reached. We thought that they had some room, and they are pursuing a legislative solution.”

Henry advised same-sex couples that live in non-marriage equality states and think they’re entitled to Social Security benefits to “keep those claims alive” and apply despite the administration’s post-DOMA policy.

“We’ve had people here who’ve called us because they had a spouse and they couldn’t continue to live in their home, and they lost their home, because they weren’t immediately able to access their Social Security benefits,” Henry said. “The harm here for real people can be quite significant.”

Despite the general rule about withholding Social Security benefits for married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states, the Justice Department found limited workaround.

If a married same-sex couple applies for benefits in a marriage-equality state, but moves to another state that doesn’t recognize the marriage, the agency won’t withhold benefits based on the place of residence standard during or after the application process.

Further, same-sex couples living in states with domestic partnerships or civil unions, but not marriage equality, would be eligible for Social Security benefits. Those states are Colorado, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Stephen Peters, president of the LGBT military group known as American Military Partner Association, called on Congress to take action, saying he’s “saddened and frustrated” that the Justice Department has decided it cannot afford to extend spousal veterans benefits to same-sex couples in states without marriage equality.

“While the administration has made great efforts in providing legal recognition to married same-sex couples wherever they determined it legally possible, it simply isn’t enough,” Peter said. “Our LGBT veterans have served, sacrificed, and in some cases died right alongside their heterosexual counterparts, and our nation cannot allow this injustice to continue.”

As with Social Security, veterans benefits would still be able to flow to married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states for the purposes of 1) transfer of GI-Bill education benefits to dependents; 2) access to group life insurance and family insurance group life insurance programs; 3) and eligibility for dependent and survivor education assistance.

Moreover, the VA recently instituted a rule change to allow joint burial for the same-sex partners of veterans in domestic partnerships or civil unions.

But according to the American Military Partner Association, veterans in non-marriage equality states still won’t have access to important benefits like ChampVA (health care for spouses of disabled veterans), higher disability compensation for disabled veterans with dependents, full access to VA home loans, and many survivor benefits for widows.

One piece of legislation that would extend all of these benefits is the Respect for Marriage Act, sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the House and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the Senate, which has a “certainty” principle that would ensure the federal benefits of marriage would flow to married same-sex couples regardless of where they live.

The Social Security & Marriage Equality Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), would address issues related to Social Security benefits, while an amendment introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) along the lines of the Charlie Morgan Act would address veterans benefits. The Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) in the U.S. House, would also address issues related to veterans benefits.

But movement on any of these bills would be extremely difficult in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, and even in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate given the limited time remaining in the legislative calendar this Congress. Moreover, whether President Obama would work to guide them toward passage remains to be seen.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, enumerated the bills that could address the situation when asked if President Obama would call for a vote on them in the U.S. Senate by year’s end.

“We look forward to working with lawmakers to pass legislation like the Respect for Marriage bills introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Jerrold Nadler, the Social Security & Marriage Equality Act introduced by Sens. Mark Udall and Patty Murray, and the Veterans Affairs’ amendment proposed by Sens. Mark Udall and Jeanne Shaheen earlier this year,” Inouye said.

Another ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court instituting marriage equality throughout the country would also address the situation. Litigation continues to percolate through the judiciary, so a final ruling from the Supreme Court on the marriage issue is expected by the middle of next year.

Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokesperson, emphasized the importance of legislation as a means to address the issue when asked about the pending litigation.

“I will refer you to our release today that said, ‘The administration looks forward to working with Congress to fix these parts of the law to ensure that Americans who rely on these programs can obtain these essential benefits no matter where they live,'” Iverson said.

Another solution could be additional litigation from same-sex couples against the federal government in these non-marriage equality states seeking Social Security and veterans benefits.

GLAD’s Henry, however, said she’s unaware of any such litigation in the works, and the process for that to happen with Social Security benefits would take an inordinate amount of time.

“It can be more than a year, which is why once you got your initial denial, you can seek an expedited review and permission to go to court, which can take a long time,” Henry said.

Henry acknowledged a nationwide ruling from the Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality would also address the situation. Although there’d be a question about retroactivity, Henry said GLAD believes such a ruling would apply to couples who had previously sought benefits.

Despite some dissatisfaction with the continued withholding of benefits, no LGBT advocate is outright criticizing the Obama administration for enforcing the place of residence standard under current law for certain Social Security and veterans benefits.

Doug NeJaime, a law professor at University of California, Irvine, said the administration’s interpretation of the relevant statutes makes sense even in the wake of the DOMA decision.

“Given the governing laws relating to social security and veterans benefits, and specifically use of residence or domicile as the determinant of marital status, it is not surprising that the administration has been unable to extend spousal benefits to same-sex couples merely through regulatory changes,” NeJaime said. “What exactly lawfully married means depends on the statutes and regulations in particular contexts, and the administration has done a lot to implement a place of celebration rule as widely as possible.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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