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Obama uses powers to expand federal rights, benefits for gays and lesbians

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A03

In the past year and a half, President Obama has quietly used his powers to expand federal rights and benefits for gays and lesbians, targeting one government restriction after another in an attempt to change public policy while avoiding a confrontation with Republicans and opponents of gay rights.

The result is that scores of federal rules blocking gay rights have been swept aside or reinterpreted by Obama officials eager to advance the agenda of a constituency that strongly backed the president's 2008 campaign.

Among the changes: Gay partners of federal workers will now receive long-term health insurance, access to day care and other benefits. Federal Housing Authority loans can no longer consider the sexual orientation of applicants. The Census Bureau plans to report the number of people who report being in a same-sex relationship. Hospitals must allow gays to visit their ill partners. And federal child-care subsidies can be used by the children of same-sex domestic partners.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department is expected to announce that federal officials have rethought the Family and Medical Leave Act, concluding that under the law, a gay federal employee may take leave to care for a child with a gay partner.

Individually, none of the changes is especially dramatic. But taken together, they significantly alter the way gays and lesbians are viewed under federal law.

The administration's effort, made largely under the radar -- and outside the reach of Congress -- has alarmed opponents of gay rights, who accuse the president of undermining traditional marriage even as he speaks about respecting it.

"He's been a supporter of married mothers and fathers in name only," said Jenny Tyree, a marriage analyst for CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. "He speaks very passionately and touchingly about how he grew up without a father. And yet there is this huge disconnect in how he's undermining that same opportunity for other children."

In a Father's Day statement Sunday, Obama called fathers "our first teachers and coaches, mentors and role models" and said that "nurturing families come in many forms, and children may be raised by a father and mother, a single father, two fathers, a stepfather, a grandfather, or caring guardian."

Tyree called the inclusion of "two fathers" in the proclamation a "very troubling" decision to promote a "motherless family."

But gay rights advocates have greeted the changes as evidence that Obama has not abandoned them -- even as he has frustrated some by failing to act quickly on campaign promises to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act and bring an end to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"The administration is moving the executive branch to really provide interpretations that will change the lives of millions of [lesbian and gay] people for the better," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign.

Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, praised Obama for finding creative ways to unravel policies that she said have long been unfair to gays.

"This administration has really opened up the toolbox that it alone has access to, to address the problems faced by gays and lesbians," she said.

Obama remains under pressure from some members of the gay community to move more quickly and forcefully on the major battles with Congress. A group of activists interrupted his speech at a Democratic fundraiser in California last month, yelling that he should do more to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

He will probably hear similar complaints Tuesday night, when he hosts a Gay and Lesbian Pride Month event at the White House for the second year in a row.

Administration officials are quick to note their legislative successes. The president signed a federal hate crimes bill into law that for the first time provides protections against crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation. And the Senate is one vote away from ending the military's controversial policy on service by gays and lesbians.

But aides said the administration has purposely sought to take other actions to circumvent those battles.

"While many of the items of concern to the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community require Congress to act, the president has also taken many steps that don't require a change in the law," said Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman. "The president and his administration remain committed to achieving equality for all, and it's clear that we're moving forward."

Obama's orders have relied largely on authority the president has to reshape the federal government, much in the way that George W. Bush used the levers of the federal bureaucracy to relax government restrictions on oil and gas exploration on federally protected land. In April, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. reinterpreted the Violence Against Women act to cover partners in a same-sex relationship. In remarks Monday to gay employees at the Justice Department, Holder promised more of the same.

"Too many of the challenges that confronted the LGBT community 16 years ago . . . confront us still today," he said at the department's celebration of gay pride month. "Too many of the same obstacles that existed then remain for us to overcome. Too many talented men and women cannot, in the words of this year's motto, "serve openly, with pride."

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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