Same-sex couples see progress on benefits for domestic partners

In front of Portland, Maine's City Hall this month, two people argued over same-sex marriage. Voters had just rejected such unions.
In front of Portland, Maine's City Hall this month, two people argued over same-sex marriage. Voters had just rejected such unions. (AP)

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By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- With public attention focused largely on battles over whether gay couples should be able to marry, a less-noticed movement to grant health and other benefits to same-sex partners is gaining significant ground across the country in courtrooms, in legislatures and at the ballot box.

In New York last week, the state's highest court upheld policies granting spousal benefits to some gay public employees who were married in another state or country.

In Washington state, voters recently endorsed an "everything but marriage" bill that expands domestic partnership rights to lesbians, gays and unmarried elderly couples.

In California last week, two federal judges ruled in separate cases in favor of awarding individual same-sex couples benefits for their spouses that previously had been denied.

And in Congress last week, a House committee approved legislation that would provide benefits, including health insurance, retirement and disability, to same-sex partners of federal employees.

"The picture on benefits and domestic partnerships has moved quite dramatically for same-sex couples, but marriage is the issue that has gotten all the attention and energy, so some of that progress has been eclipsed," said Jane Schacter, a law professor at Stanford University. "Certainly, there has been movement on marriage as well, but nothing as much as domestic partnerships."

Much of the attention has focused on a stinging loss for gay rights advocates in Maine this month, when voters repealed a state law that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed. The vote made Maine the 31st state to block same-sex marriage through a public referendum.

Although advocates of marriage equality had drawn more money, political support and volunteers in Maine than in similar campaigns nationwide, the outcome affirmed what some polls already indicated. About 57 percent of Americans oppose granting same-sex marriages legal status, compared with 40 percent who support it, according to a May Gallup poll. But 67 percent of Americans say same-sex domestic partners should have access to health insurance and other benefits, the same poll found.

Even one of the most prominent opponents of same-sex marriage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has shown willingness to support rights outside of marriage. This month, in a surprise move, the church backed proposed Salt Lake City laws that would prohibit discrimination against gays in housing and employment.

Many private employers already offer domestic partnership benefits. About 57 percent of Fortune 500 companies, for example, provide domestic partner health insurance benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization.

While states are offering benefits as well, the federal government has lagged behind because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, thus barring spousal benefits to same-sex partners.

But that is changing, according to Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Sears cited President Obama's memorandum in June that extended a limited set of benefits to same-sex partners, allowing them to be added to long-term-care insurance policies and to use sick leave to care for partners.

"I think really the newest thing happening here is that it's reaching the federal level," Sears said. "For the public sector to remain competitive, it needs to offer domestic partnership benefits."

And gay rights groups believe the nation's support for same-sex marriage will also grow.

"Public support for marriage hasn't caught up to public support for relationship recognition benefits, but it will," said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a New-York based discrimination watchdog. "Because at the end of the day, the public sees that marriage and all the benefits associated with it are about . . . what people need to honor their commitment to their spouses and protect them."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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