DOMA Ruling Allows Feds to Share Benefits With Same-Sex Spouses

American University students Sharon Burk, left, and Molly Wagner, embrace outside the Supreme Court in Washington. American University students Sharon Burk, left, and Molly Wagner, embrace outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Charles Dharapak/AP

This story has been updated.

The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday, clearing the way for federal employees to share benefits with their same-sex spouses.

The 1996 law defined marriage as between a man and a woman, affecting more than 1,000 laws in which marital status is a factor. Several of those laws govern federal workforce’s benefits, such as the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan, survivor benefits and pension programs.

The Office of Personnel Management -- which administers federal employee benefits -- has cited DOMA as the reason it cannot offer benefits to same-sex couples.

“For those benefits of federal employment that are limited to spouses, DOMA thus prohibits coverage of same-sex domestic partners, even if legally married under state law,” OPM said on its website.

In April, OPM proposed to extend FEHB to domestic partners -- including both opposite- and same-sex couples -- but fell short of including same-sex spouses in its plan. The agency issued a statement on Wednesday asking for “continued patience” of federal employees as they review the Supreme Court’s decision.

“In the coming days, OPM will be working closely with the Department of Justice and other agencies to provide additional guidance for federal human resources professionals, benefits officers, and our employees and annuitants,” OPM’s Acting Director Elaine Kaplan said. “While we recognize that our married gay and lesbian employees have already waited too long for this day, we ask for their continued patience as we take the steps necessary to review the Supreme Court’s decision and implement it. As soon as we have updates to share, they will be posted on our website.”

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department will work with other agencies to determine implementation plans, and called the decision “an enormous triumph for equal protection under the law for all Americans.”

The Obama administration declined to defend DOMA in United States v. Windsor, the case on which the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. Republican leaders in the House hired legal representation to defend it, but the court ruled the law unconstitutional by a 5-4 decision.

“DOMA’s history of enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, conferred by the states in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “It was its essence.”

He added DOMA had the effect of “writing inequality into the entire U.S. Code.”

When hearing oral arguments in March, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said federal benefits “touch every aspect of life.”

“Your partner is sick -- I mean, it’s pervasive. It’s not as though there’s this little federal sphere and it’s only a tax question,” she said.

The American Federation of Government Employees praised the ruling, with National President J. David Cox calling it a “victory of equality over exclusion, of fairness over fear, of compassion over contempt.”

The union called on OPM to act quickly in allowing federal employees to share benefits with same-sex spouses.

“Now that the Supreme Court has declared DOMA unconstitutional, we expect the federal government to move swiftly in changing its rules and regulations to ensure that all federal employees are afforded the same rights and benefits, regardless of whom they choose to marry,” said Leisha Self, an AFGE legal rights attorney.

Other federal employees groups, such as the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Federation of Federal Employees, also called for the Obama administration to quickly offer guidance on how the ruling will be implemented.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised he would get to work “immediately” to determine implementation of the ruling.

“The Department of Defense welcomes the Supreme Court's decision today on the Defense of Marriage Act,” Hagel said in a statement. “The department will immediately begin the process of implementing the Supreme Court's decision in consultation with the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies. The Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses -- regardless of sexual orientation -- as soon as possible. That is now the law and it is the right thing to do.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a press conference Wednesday that despite its reputation, the military has always “done a credible job of providing as much equality as the law allows.”

The Williams Institute, a think tank dedicated to issues of sexual orientation, has estimated there are 200,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees in the federal workforce. 

Clarification: AFGE called on OPM to act quickly in allowing federal employees to share benefits with same-sex spouses. 

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