The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Key federal employee benefits at stake in DOMA case

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A pending U.S. Supreme Court decision could have important implications for those who favor extending federal employee benefits to same-sex spouses, although one recent poll suggested that the court of public opinion already has ruled in their favor.

The 1,022 adults polled were asked whether they would “vote for or against a law that would give marriage benefits to federal government employees who are legally married to a same-sex partner, including insurance, tax benefits, and Social Security benefits.”

Seventy-three percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents but only 38 percent of Republicans were in favor. The sample had a  four percentage point margin of error.

The margin in favor of extending the benefits “generally mirrors” overall views on gay marriage, Gallup said, adding that surveys by other firms “have also shown support above the majority level, although the level of support has varied, perhaps due to question wording.”

While same-sex marriage is recognized in some states and in the District of Columbia, the Defense of Marriage Act has prevented the federal government from providing certain benefits to the spouses of its employees in such marriages. That includes two of the most valuable: coverage as a family member under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and eligibility for standard retirement annuity survivor benefits.

What will happen with those benefits in the light of the high court decision, expected this week, will depend on how the court rules and, if DOMA is struck down, how the ruling is applied.

The Obama administration previously extended some federal employment-related benefits to same-sex couples, regardless of marital status, who meet certain standards for domestic partnership.

Those benefits include a variant form of survivor annuity called an “insurable interest” annuity that typically is less valuable than a standard annuity; eligibility to enroll in the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program, for which there is no government contribution toward premiums; and eligibility as family members for certain employee relocation benefits, among others. Employees also can use sick leave to care for those partners or their children under certain circumstances.

Proposals to grant the full range of federal employment benefits to same-sex domestic partners have made only limited progress in Congress over the years.