Uncle Sam has no wedding gift of benefits for same-sex couples

Candy Holmes wipes away a tear from Darlene Garner's face after the couple obtained a marriage license.
Candy Holmes wipes away a tear from Darlene Garner's face after the couple obtained a marriage license. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When Lorilyn "Candy" Holmes and Darlene Garner get married Tuesday, it will be a joyous and historic occasion.

But an uninvited uncle will lurk among the well-wishers. They won't notice him, but Holmes and Garner will know he's there. His disapproving presence will linger, unseen, but not unfelt.

Uncle Sam doesn't like the Holmes-Garner wedding because the couple are the same sex. Though he does not have the power to stop the nuptials, he does have the ability, like a meddlesome relative, to make his displeasure known.

While Sam provides a nice package of benefits that cover spouses of his staff members, he's not going to give that wedding gift to Holmes, who has served him for 33 years, and Garner. Holmes, an information technology manager at the Government Accountability Office, will make history when she and Garner, along with others, become the first same-sex couples to legally marry in the District. They are marriages that Uncle Sam won't recognize. Most, but not all, of Holmes's co-workers, however, are supportive.

The Defense of Marriage Act prevents him from honoring same-sex marriages. It's a law the Obama administration says it must enforce, even though President Obama doesn't like it.

Just a week ago, the Justice Department told a judge in California that because of DOMA, the Office of Personnel Management must block benefits to the wife of a woman employed by a federal court.

"As the President has stated previously, this Administration does not support DOMA as a matter of policy, believes that it is discriminatory, and supports its repeal," Justice Department lawyers said in court papers filed on behalf of OPM. "The Administration also supports legislation that would make federal benefits such as the FEHBP [Federal Employees Health Benefits Program] available to the same-sex partners of federal employees. . . . Nonetheless, the Executive Branch must apply and faithfully execute the laws as they stand . . . even where it disagrees with them as a policy matter, as it does here."

The papers were filed in a case brought by Karen Golinski, a lawyer employed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, who has sued OPM because it says health insurance benefits available to federal spouses may not be provided to her wife. They were wed in California when same-sex marriages were legal.

House and Senate committees have approved legislation that would provide benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Holmes testified in favor of the House bill in July, saying she wanted to "bear witness openly as a lesbian federal employee who seeks fair and equal treatment."

"It is disturbing and demoralizing to be deemed a second-class citizen and worker," her testimony continued, "and to be told through unfair policies and unjust practices that I cannot enjoy the benefits of my labor on an equal footing with my opposite-gender counterparts."

Ironically, if that legislation becomes law, Garner still would not be covered by the spousal benefits, because the legislation applies only to unmarried same-sex couples. The inability to extend those benefits to the woman who will be her wife makes the government's discrimination "more obvious, more apparent, more stark," Holmes said in an interview.

She was in the Oval Office in June when Obama signed a presidential memorandum extending limited domestic benefits to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees. The memo covered long-term care insurance and the use of federal employee sick leave to care for ill domestic partners.

Holmes, 53, and Garner, 61, reflected on their relationship and federal law after their wedding rehearsal on Sunday at the Human Rights Campaign building. Both are ministers in the Metropolitan Community Churches and plan a religious matrimonial ceremony later this year.

Despite DOMA, Holmes said, "I'm glad and appreciative for the opportunity to marry, no matter what the government does."

Though the federal government won't recognize her marriage, she said her federal government co-workers, at least many of them, don't have a problem with it. "The workplace has been very positive, very affirming," she said.

Her supervisor -- a man -- has even offered to organize a wedding shower.

"I was so struck by it, it drew tears," she said of the offer. For years she had attended such events for others, she said, thinking that she would never have the same opportunity.

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