October 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Feinstein urges Obama to extend further benefits to gay couples
Dianne Feinstein, Democratic Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is calling on the Obama administration to extend further Social Security and veterans benefits to same-sex couples. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is calling on President Obama to further extend the federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples in the aftermath of rapid movement on marriage equality throughout the country.

In a letter dated Oct. 8, Feinstein writes that the Obama administration should extend certain Social Security and veterans spousal benefits to married same-sex couples in states without marriage equality — just as it has done with other federal spousal benefits. The letter was first reported by Frontiers, a Los Angeles-based LGBT publication.

“In my view, the wave of decisions holding that states’ bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional means that this unequal and unfair treatment cannot continue,” Feinstein said.

The senior senator from California takes note of the Supreme Court’s refusal to review court decisions in favor of marriage equality in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin as the well as the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down same-sex marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho. As Feinstein says, those decisions could bring the tally of marriage-equality states in the country very soon to 35.

“Beyond ensuring that same-sex couples can marry and have their marriages recognized, this precedent has major significance for federal benefits cases,” Feinstein writes. “If a state law barring same-sex marriage is unconstitutionally discriminatory, so too is a federal law that gives effect to such discrimination in the allocation of benefits. Thus, gay and lesbian couples would likely prevail in lawsuits against the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or other federal agencies that do not recognize their lawful marriages.”

In response to a request to comment on the letter, the White House referred to the Justice Department. Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokesperson, said, “The department is reviewing the letter.”

Feinstein is the lead sponsor of legislation known as the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill aimed at repealing the Defense of Marriage Act has a “certainly provision” that would ensure married same-sex couples can access federal benefits wherever they in the country. The California lawmaker was one of among 14 U.S. senators to vote against DOMA when it came to the Senate floor in 1996.

After the Supreme Court ruled against DOMA the Obama administration set a goal of extending federal spousal benefits to married same-sex couples to the furthest extent possible under the law regardless of whether or not these families live in marriage-equality states.

Although the administration began to afford major benefits to same-sex couples  throughout the country related to taxes, immigration, and benefits for federal workers and U.S. service members, the Justice Department determined certain Social Security and veterans benefits couldn’t be afforded to gay couples living in states without marriage equality. The portions of U.S. code governing those benefits looks to the state of residence, nor the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married.

The Obama administration endorsed legislation to make a change in the law to ensure Social Security and veteran spousal benefits flow to all married same-sex couples. But bills to extend Social Security benefits haven’t moved; and an amendment introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) was voted down that would extend veterans benefits in the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Meanwhile, Lambda Legal has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the American Military Partner Association seeking to compel the Department of Veterans Affairs to afford spousal benefits to same-sex couples regardless of the state in which they reside, arguing that continuing to withhold of these benefits violates the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision against DOMA.

Another federal lawsuit filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Rhode Island challenges the place of domicile rule for Social Security benefits. If successful, the lawsuit could institute spousal Social Security benefits for same-sex couples throughout the country.

David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of government affairs, said his organization has the same views on these benefits that Feinstein articulates in her letter.

“We’ve seen Senator Feinstein’s letter and we share her view,” Stacy said. “We believe that the Obama Administration has the legal authority to provide these benefits, and this week’s action by the Supreme Court further reinforces that authority.”

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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