The federal government announced regulatory changes to extend a wide range of marriage benefits to same-sex couples, making good on a promise by President Obama after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last year.

The Department of Labor said it would clarify that federal employees will be able to take leave from their jobs to care for a same-sex spouse, something that has long been limited to heterosexual married couples. The Social Security Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department said they would also expand benefits for same-sex couples, subject to some legal restrictions.

After decades of blocking gay married couples from receiving the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts, most federal agencies are now treating married couples alike, regardless of gender.

The actions are important, officials said, because of differences in how states treat same-sex marriage. Without the regulatory changes, same-sex couples could be blocked from receiving federal benefits in states that do not recognize their marriages. Same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

The actions announced extend the changes that have been made at other agencies in the year since the marriage act was declared unconstitutional.

Under the changes, same-sex spouses of Defense Department employees now receive all the benefits of heterosexual husbands and wives. Federal immigration laws apply equally to gay and straight married couples. The Internal Revenue Service recognizes the marriages of all gay couples. The spouses of gay federal employees get health insurance, life insurance and flexible spending accounts.

But officials said that a small number of provisions in federal law explicitly prohibit the government from providing benefits to same-sex couples. Those laws apply to the Social Security agency and the Veterans Affairs Department, where officials said that Mr. Obama is unable to provide benefits by simply changing regulations.

The officials said the president would call on Congress to pass legislation to change those provisions.

The actions announced were the latest examples of Mr. Obama’s embrace of equality for gay couples after what he called his evolution on the issue. Mr. Obama once opposed same-sex marriage, but he said two years ago that his position had changed.

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Mr. Obama told Robin Roberts of ABC News in May 2012.

Since then, Mr. Obama has aggressively sided with advocates of same-sex marriage and other gay rights. His administration argued in the Supreme Court for the Defense of Marriage Act to be overturned, and his administration argued that the court should strike down Proposition 8, the California ban on same-sex marriage. He also eliminated the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members.

At a New York gala for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, Mr. Obama hailed the rights that were extended to gays in the last year, saying, “If we’re truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a group advocating marriage equality, praised Mr. Obama’s efforts and called on state and federal lawmakers to go even further.

“Gay couples who are married, like non-gay married couples, now share in the crucial federal safety-net of protections and responsibilities, even in states that continue to discriminate,” Mr. Wolfson said. “But because of ongoing marriage discrimination in 31 states, hundreds of thousands of couples continue to face the cruel denial of important Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Congress should move swiftly to pass curative legislation for our veterans and seniors.”

Source: New York Times

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