Obama backs extension of benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees

President issues memo granting limited benefits immediately and endorses legislation providing full benefits.

President Obama on Wednesday directed the Office of Personnel Management to extend long-term care benefits and family and parental leave to the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian federal employees, and ordered agencies to conduct internal reviews to identify other benefits that they could extend as well.

"Many of our government's hard-working, dedicated, and patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy for one simple reason -- the people that they love are of the same sex," Obama said. Obama stopped short of granting employees' domestic partners access to health care benefits, saying he legally could not do so, but endorsed legislation that would provide such benefits.

The legislation, known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (H.R. 2517) is currently under consideration on Capitol Hill.

"Extending equal benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees is the right thing to do," Obama said. "It is also sound economic policy. Many top employers in the private sector already offer benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees; those companies recognize that offering partner benefits helps them compete for and retain the brightest and most talented employees. The federal government is at a disadvantage on that score right now, and change is long overdue."

Obama also backed a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the government from offering full domestic partner benefits. "It's discriminatory, it interferes with states' rights, and it's time we overturned it," he said.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry characterized Obama's memo as "a first step, not a final step. This is an attempt to get our federal house in order…. I think the gay community, of which I am a member, can be extremely proud that this administration is with us and stands with us on the core issues that we care deeply about."

The memo mentions two specific governmentwide benefits for civil servants: the long-term care insurance program and the right to use sick leave to care for an ailing partner or nonbiological, nonadoptive children. It also lists a number of other benefits for the partners of State Department employees. Obama directed OPM and State to move immediately to provide those benefits.

Berry said while some federal supervisors have been understanding about sick leave use, the president's order would create a uniform policy.

"When I worked at the Smithsonian and my partner passed away in 1996, my supervisor, Connie Newman, extended to me the ability to take leave to handle that situation," he said. "Federal employees will no longer have to rely on whether their supervisor is enlightened or not."

Michelle Schohn, president of the employee group Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, said it was disappointing that the administration had waited so long to let the State Department act on plans to change policies affecting the spouses of gay and lesbian diplomats when they are stationed overseas. A draft of a plan by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to allow Foreign Service officers' domestic partners access to medical facilities, job competitions and housing and evacuation coverage has been circulating since at least May. But Schohn noted that most Foreign Service officers are assigned to new posts in April.

"From the perspective of people whose lives depend on these changes, the change has seemed to be very slow and tentative," she said.

The memorandum also directs department and agency heads to begin internal reviews to determine if they can offer additional benefits to gay and lesbian employees. Berry conducted such a review as an assistant secretary in the Interior Department during the Clinton administration. It led to the expansion of relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of Interior employees and the elimination of provisions of the National Park Service's law enforcement standards, including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees.

Obama gave OPM 90 days to issue guidance on how agencies should implement civil service laws offering protection against discrimination. Berry said the guidance would make clear that in addition to sexual orientation, gender expression and identity cannot provide a basis for discrimination in employment.

"It is the view of the president and the administration that it is a bedrock principle of federal civil service that the employer does not make employment decisions on anything other than the employee's ability to do their job," Berry said.

Schohn said adding gender identity to anti-discrimination policy would be a significant step.

"It is the kind of forward-leaning thing that I think the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community is looking for," she said. "We're looking for our president to tell us that all kinds of discrimination are wrong."

But Schohn also noted that access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is "the big thing."

Health benefits for federal employees became a pressing issue for the administration in January and February, when two California federal judges ordered their benefits offices to process health care enrollments for the partners of two gay court employees. In the past, OPM has said the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from treating same-sex couples in the same way as heterosexual married couples, blocked the agency from extending health care benefits. The judges argued that OPM in fact had the authority to grant access to health care to domestic partners if it chose to do so.

The administration also faces a June 29 deadline to file a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act in a suit brought by a group of gay federal employees in Massachusetts. Those employees, who are legally married to their partners, say the government has unfairly denied them benefits available to heterosexual married couples. The administration has drawn fire from gay rights groups for a brief defending DOMA in a separate lawsuit in California.

Federal labor unions said they would renew their push for passage of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act in conjunction with Obama's endorsement of the bill. Richard Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, wrote to Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who sponsored the Senate and House versions of the legislation, to say the union "stand[s] ready to assist you in helping this bill become law." Baldwin appeared with Obama at the White House Wednesday when he signed his memo.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said her union also would continue its advocacy on behalf of the bill and seek out opportunities to negotiate with agencies to extend benefits to same-sex couples.