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The Olive Branch: Obama Extends Benefits to Partners of Federal Employees

By L. K. Regan

Today President Obama will extend partial benefits to domestic partners (both gay and straight) of federal employees. His decision is widely being viewed as a response to a growing sense of discontent in the LGBT community which, in the face of inaction (and perhaps worse) on Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, had begun to cry foul on the White House's commitment to gay civil rights. Will this decision rebuild trust, or is it merely a token gesture?

President Obama's decision to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees brings his administration directly into the path of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevents the federal government from treating as equivalent to marriage anything other than a union between a man and a woman. Already the federal Office of Personnel Management is citing DOMA as grounds for refusing to comply with two California federal appeals court judges who declared that their court employees' same-sex partners should be entitled to collect benefits. For this reason, the administration will stop short of extending full benefits to same-sex partners, and will limit the extent of health care coverage. In fact, the true impact of the change in policy remains to be seen, and may have primarily symbolic significance.

Even so, the staged collision between the administration's new policy and DOMA is no accident. Last week saw a new low in relations between the LGBT community and the Obama administration, as President Obama's Justice Department filed a brief defending DOMA in California court. The brief deeply offended LGBT activists, primarily because it not only set out to defend DOMA, but crafted an original set of arguments to shore up the hated law. Where President Bush's lawyers had argued that traditional marriage was ideal for producing and raising children, the Obama administration's argument centers on the question of economic fairness. According to the Justice Department lawyers, by adopting what the brief calls "a policy of federal neutrality towards a new form of marriage," DOMA allows states to expand their definition of marriage without obliging all American citizens to see their federal tax dollars go to provide benefits for marriages that might not be legal in their own home states.

Needless to say, the replacement of the moral argument for DOMA with an economic one struck many gay activists as anything but an improvement. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote a sharply-worded letter to the president, and told the press, "Same-sex couples and their families are not seeking subsidies. We pay taxes equally, contribute to our communities equally, support each other equally, pay equally into Social Security, and participate equally in our democracy. Equal protection is not a handout. It is our right as citizens."

The conflict between President Obama and the gay community has unfolded against the backdrop of the president's consistent pledge on the campaign trail and since coming to office to end DOMA. Defending its submission of the controversial brief, the Justice Department released a statement claiming that, in the absence of congressional action on DOMA, it was beholden to defend the law on the books, however much the President might dislike that law: "As it generally does with existing statutes, the Justice Department is defending the law on the books in court. The president has said he wants to see a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act because it prevents LGBT couples from being granted equal rights and benefits. However, until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."

This statement leaves open the question of not only when but if President Obama will seek congressional action on DOMA. As yet, it is unclear whether the extension of benefits to partners of federal employees is a sign of future change, or another band-aid on the wound of inequality.