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President Obama's assertion that the federal ban on same sex-marriage is unconstitutional has expanded the political debate on legal rights for gay Americans.
The administration's position on the Defense of Marriage Act "will affect every nook and cranny of gay rights," says James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's a new world," says Esseks, who heads the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project.
By saying it regards the 15-year-old federal law as unconstitutional, the White House has injected gay rights as an issue into the next presidential election. Obama is expected to run for a second term in 2012.
Some conservative activists have already begun raising money by pointing to what they characterize as the White House's refusal to "defend marriage," and influential Catholic leaders are echoing that language.
Those groups already were displeased by Congress' repeal of a ban on openly gay Americans in the military. Now the administration's position on DOMA brings fresh attention to other efforts under way to equalize treatment of gays and lesbians under federal law.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, in the wake of the White House decision, have promised to reintroduce a bill that would repeal the act and will propose legislation to extend spousal benefits to domestic partners and spouses of gay federal workers.
Though the president's move has been characterized as a turning point — for him and the gay-rights movement — even the most optimistic activists say that rapid change on marriage and benefits is unlikely given the current political and economic realities on Capitol Hill.
Marriage And Benefits
The fate of DOMA remains in the hands of the courts and Congress.
"The Defense of Marriage Act is still the law of the land and still very much in effect," says Brian Moulton, chief legal counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights organization.
But Moulton says that not only does the administration's decision strengthen the call for extending benefits to same-sex partners but it also means the law may "go away sooner rather than later."
On Thursday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said he planned to reintroduce his Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the ban on same-sex marriage. Aides to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said he plans to introduce his domestic partnership bill again. Lieberman's bill, and a similar one in the House sponsored by openly gay Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, would extend federal spousal benefits to the domestic partners of gay federal workers.
In 2009, the administration used its authority to extend certain fringe benefits to the same-sex partners of gay federal workers. Those benefits include using sick time to care for a same-sex partner or, in the case of federal workers overseas, relocation help and coverage for medically evacuating a partner from a foreign post.
But same-sex partners remain ineligible for health and life insurance benefits and access to their partner's retirement benefits.
"The administration has made it clear that they cannot extend these benefits without Congress," Esseks says.
Lieberman, who held hearings on his bill last year, has argued that extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees is not only a civil-rights issue, but one that would make the government more competitive in attracting talent.
Nearly 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies offered domestic partnership benefits in 2009, as do nearly two dozen states, and more than 8,000 private-sector companies, according to data compiled by the Senate.
"Clearly, there is growing support for this legislation," Baldwin says. "But with the House now in Republican hands, I do think it is unlikely to advance there, though I still think there's a prospect in the Senate.
"But this issue won't be resolved at the end of this Congress," she says. "We need to keep pushing, and tell the very personal stories of what people suffer because they are not able to protect their families with health care coverage and other tangible benefits that help keep their families strong."
Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, although new gay marriages in California have been halted pending the outcome of an ongoing court battle. On Thursday, Maryland appeared poised to become the seventh, after the Senate approved a gay-marriage bill.
With DOMA still a national law, marriages in those jurisdictions are not recognized by the federal government.
Three states have passed same-sex civil union laws, which provide state-level spousal rights to gay couples, according to Marriage Equality USA. A half-dozen states have domestic-partnership provisions. Thirty states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
Correction: February 25, 2011 12:00 am — A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Jerrold Nadler as a New Jersey representative. Nadler represents New York.
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