In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. The law prohibits the federal government from recognizing domestic partnerships, civil unions or marriages between people of the same sex. While some federal departments attempt to extend what benefits they can to domestic partners, the list of benefits available to partners of federal employees is short.
DOMA defined “marriage,” for the purpose of federal law and operations as a union between one man and one woman. DOMA prohibits any branch of the federal government from recognizing relationships, such as domestic partnerships, that are outside of this definition. Far from symbolic, DOMA impacts citizens and federal employees in a number of ways by barring the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from recognizing joint tax returns filed by domestic partners and preventing federal departments from extending health-care benefits to the partners of employees, among other things.
President Obama won the endorsement of many gay advocacy groups during his presidential campaign by stating that he respected same-sex relationships. In a symbolic gesture, President Obama extended a number of fringe benefits to domestic partners of federal employees in June 2010, such as child care, employee training and assistance programs as well as travel and relocation costs. However, many of the more basic benefits that are available to married heterosexual couples, such as health insurance and pension plans, are not available to domestic partners of any gender.
The exact definition of a domestic partnership or a domestic partner changes from location to location and employer to employer. Following President Obama’s 2010 recommendations, the Office of Personnel Management began collecting affidavits from employees and their partners. The affidavits state that the couple — which can be two people of any sex or gender — are in a committed and intimate relationship and share responsibility for each other’s financial needs and general well-being.
In an attempt to recruit and retain the growing number of workers in domestic partnerships, the State Department leads federal departments in finding ways to provide benefits to domestic partners. Soon after being sworn into office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended many benefits to domestic partners of the department’s employees. The benefits now available to both employees with spouses and those with domestic partners include diplomatic passports, relocation expenses, use of medical facilities and family member hiring preference at overseas posts.
To bypass or dispose of DOMA, one of two things must happen. Either Congress must pass additional legislation to amend or remove DOMA, or a federal court must nullify part or all of the federal law. HR 2517 — also known as the Domestic Partner Benefits Obligation Act — is an attempt to pass legislation amending DOMA. HR 2517 would make an exception to DOMA to extend full benefits to employees with domestic partners, except those in the armed forces. HR 2517 is based on the argument that benefits are a significant part of employee compensation, hence, denying benefits for any reason is tantamount to unequal compensation for equal work.
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