On same-sex benefits change is welcome but … LGBT leaders challenge Obama to go further

Leading civil rights organizations welcomed President Obama’s memorandum expanding some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees June 17, but called on the President to take bolder steps on other hot-button LGBT equality issues.

President Obama’s memorandum on federal employee benefits ordered the Office of Personnel Management to extend benefits to ‘qualified same-sex domestic partners’ and all executive branch departments and agencies to review existing benefits packages ‘to determine what authority they have to extend such benefits to same-sex domestic partners.’ Federal law currently imposes limits on the extension of employee benefits to domestic partners.

The goal of the memorandum was to ‘achieve greater equality for the Federal workforce through extension to same-sex domestic partners of benefits currently available to married people of the opposite sex.’

In his remarks announcing the extension of benefits, President Obama expressed support for the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, which would remove some of the legal barriers to extending federal benefits more fully to the same-sex partners of federal employees. He further reiterated his goal of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.

‘We’ve got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally, to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms, and to bring about that more perfect union,’ the President said. ‘I’m committed to these efforts, and I pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of these issues in the months and years to come.

In a statement, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, described the order as ‘one building block toward full equality’ and said it ‘inches our federal government closer to nondiscrimination.’

Carey added, however, that her organization expects the President to deliver on key promises to the LGBT community. She cited specifically his promise to end the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ military policy, his support for hate crimes legislation, and his pledge to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

The decision to extend federal benefits came just days after a number of LGBT civil rights groups slammed a Department of Justice legal brief that defended the discriminatory marriage act and appeared to contradict the president’s own stated opposition to the law.

The DOJ legal brief, according to some civil rights groups, appeared to describe the marriage law as ‘valid’ and as not a violation of basic rights protected under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In one passage, the DOJ brief stated, ‘Defense of Marriage Act maintains federal policies that have long sought to promote the traditional and uniformly-recognized form of marriage, recognizes the right of each State to expand the traditional definition if it so chooses, but declines to obligate federal taxpayers in other States to subsidize a form of marriage that their own states do not recognize.’

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese rejected this argument. “Same-sex couples and their families are not seeking subsidies,” he said in a statement. “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,” he said.

Solmonese welcomed the presidential memorandum extending federal benefits to same-sex partners, calling it ‘long-overdue.’

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., challenged civil rights activists to ‘help us get the votes in Congress’ for moving the equality agenda forward. ‘Lobbying is much tougher than rhetoric,’ he stated.