U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged to extend federal benefits to married gay couples to the furthest extent possible under the law. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
Ever since the Supreme Court ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act last year, the Obama administration has been rolling out on a continual basis new federal benefits for married same-sex couples ‚ÄĒ but access to some benefits remains uncertain months after the decision.
While the administration has afforded a preponderance of the 1,138 federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, other benefits ‚ÄĒ including Social Security, veterans and family leave benefits ‚ÄĒ are still in limbo for those living in non-marriage equality states. For these benefits, federal policy looks to the place of residence, not the place of celebration, in determining whether a person is married.
The policy of the Obama administration has been to expand benefits to married same-sex couples to the furthest extend possible under the law following the court decision against DOMA. That position was formalized last week in a memo from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder extending certain federal benefits under the purview of the Justice Department to married gay couples.
“It is the Department’s policy, to the extent federal law permits, to recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible, and to recognize valid in the jurisdiction where the marriage was celebrated,” Holder writes.
Thus far, the administration has extended numerous benefits to married same-sex couples related to taxes, immigration, federal employee benefits, employer-provided pensions and, most recently, the ability to refuse to testify against a spouse in federal court ‚ÄĒ even if these couples live in non-marriage equality states. The Justice Department has also ceased enforcement of a provision in Title 38, which governs veterans benefits, that independently defines marriage in opposite-sex terms.
But things get dicier when it comes to other benefits where the law governing them looks to the state law where a couple resides, rather than the state law where the couple was married in determining whether a marriage is legitimate. Does the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA mean that these portions of these laws should also not be enforced, or are they so far removed from the ruling they require a legislative fix?
One such issue is with Social Security benefits. Although the Social Security Administration is processing retirement and survivor benefits for same-sex couples living in marriage-equality states, for the time being, it’s placing applications on hold for married same-sex couples living in places that don’t their recognize their union.
Kia Anderson, a Social Security spokesperson, said work coordinated with the Justice Department is still underway to determine whether her agency can recognize these same-sex marriages for benefits purposes.
“We are working with the Department of Justice to develop and implement policy and processing instructions on this issue,” Anderson said. “However, we encourage people to apply right away for benefits, even if they aren’t sure they are eligible. Applying now will protect against the loss of any potential benefits.”
Yet another benefit on hold for married same-sex couples living in non-marriage equality states is veterans benefits, which include disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran‚Äôs cemetery for the spouses of former service members. As with Social Security law, a portion of veterans’ law, 103(c) of Title 38, looks to state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married.
Genevieve Billia, a spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said her department is still reviewing the issue of these benefits with the Justice Department.
“VA is working closely with the Department of Justice to develop guidance to process cases involving same-sex spousal benefits, and to implement necessary changes swiftly and smoothly in order to deliver the best services to all our nation‚Äôs veterans,” Billia said. “Our commitment to provide all veterans and their families with their earned care and benefits will continue to be our focus as VA implements the Supreme Court‚Äôs decision in Windsor, and the president‚Äôs direction on Title 38.”
The continued enforcement of 103(c) of Title 38 to discriminate against gay couples has been a cause for concern for U.S. senators. Last month, seven senators ‚ÄĒ led by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) ‚ÄĒ called on the Obama administration to stop enforcing the law in a way that blocks gay veterans in same-sex marriages from receiving spousal benefits.
Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, called the issue “a top concern” among veterans belonging to the LGBT military group.
“While we understand it takes time to review existing policies and laws in light of the Windsor decision, for the sake of our veterans and their families, our hope is that the administration will take swift action in extending full and equal VA benefits no matter what state the veteran and their family live in,” Peters said. “These veterans have earned these benefits and there is no valid reason why they should continue to be denied them.”
The American Military Partner Association has launched an online petition calling on Holder to stop enforcing U.S. code governing veterans benefits in a way that discriminates against same-sex couples. According to the organization, a little more than 1,000 people had signed the petition as of Wednesday.
Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed confidence the administration would be able to come to a conclusion on these issues as it has done with other benefits in the aftermath of the DOMA ruling.
“Federal agencies have moved with commendable speed to extend recognition to married same-sex couples, and to do so in a way that recognizes that these marriages don‚Äôt dissolve when a couple crosses state lines,” Thompson said. “While more work remains, including with SSA and the VA, we are confident that these issues can be properly addressed.”
The Justice Department didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on the pace with which these benefits are being rolled out or when these outstanding issues will be resolved.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, touted the administration’s work so far in implementing benefits as he acknowledged “some work remains.”
“Following the Supreme Court‚Äôs ruling in Windsor, the president directed the attorney general to work with the Cabinet to review federal law to ensure the decision and its implications for federal benefits and obligations are implemented swiftly and smoothly,” Inouye said. “That process is ongoing, and while some work remains, the administration has worked to affirm the principle that all couples who are legally married receive full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law.”
Should the administration determine it must continue enforcing these laws, a legislative fix from Congress would be necessary to ensure these benefits can flow to gay couples. For the Social Security benefits, that would mean passage of the Social Security Equality Act, sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez in the House. For the veterans benefits, that would mean passage of the Charlie Morgan Act, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in the Senate.
The federal benefits of marriage across the board would be assured for married gay couples regardless of where they live after passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which is sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the House and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the Senate.
A Senate Judiciary Committee aide told the Blade last year that a Senate hearing was in the works for fall 2013 on the legislation. Although the hearing never took place, a Senate aide told the Blade plans are still underway for a hearing.
‚ÄúChairman Leahy continues to push for timely and comprehensive implementation of the Windsor decision, including last week‚Äôs landmark announcement that the Justice Department will treat all lawfully married couples equally in federal legal matters,” the Leahy aide said. “Chairman Leahy is committed to taking discrimination out of our laws, and he is working to schedule a hearing and build support for the Respect for Marriage Act.”
Not all the outstanding issues in the aftermath of the DOMA ruling are related to law. Benefits are blocked from flowing to married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states under the Family & Medical Leave Act not because of statute, but by regulation, which the administration could change at any time without action from Congress.
And that change is already taking place. Last last year, the Department of Labor announced it was changing the regulations for the Family & Medical Leave Act ‚ÄĒ along with regulations for a slew of other laws ‚ÄĒ to ensure those benefits flow to married same-sex couples living in non-marriage equality states. According to Thompson’s HR Compliance Expert, the change will be implemented in March.
Laura Fortman, principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage & Hour Division, wrote about the proposed change in a little-noticed blog post at the time.
“No one should have to choose between succeeding at work and being a loving family caregiver,” Fortman said. “The FMLA‚Äôs protections help ensure that people have the opportunity to be both and our proposed rulemaking is an important step in ensuring the law keeps up with the needs of all families in this country.”
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said her organization looks forward to the day when the DOMA decision is “fully implemented” by the federal government.
“Steady progress is being made and more is to come,” Carey said. “For example, we are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that health insurance plans offer coverage for same-sex spouses regardless of where they live. Big picture, we fully expect this landmark decision to continue to positively impact the lives of LGBT people and their families for years to come and in ways that we haven’t even imagined.”