Federal Workers Sue To Break DOMA's Bar on Benefits

March 20, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Gay and lesbian federal employees and their spouses are suing the government for full retirement and health care benefits currently denied them under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

According to FederalTimes.com, the organization Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed the suit challenging section 3 of DOMA earlier this month in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The “Defense of Marriage Act” or DOMA, was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. It defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and it blocks federal spousal benefits, such as health and pension benefits, from going to same-sex spouses of federal employees and retirees.

GLAD notes that this lawsuit challenges only Section 3 of the law, which excludes legally married same-sex couples from any federal law or program in which marriage is a factor, seeking a ruling that DOMA Section 3 is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs in Federal Income Tax, Social Security, federal employment benefits, and the issuance of passports.

According to a Q&A posted on their web site , GLAD “seeks a declaration that by passing DOMA Section 3 Congress violated the U.S. Constitution by exceeding its authority in redefining elements of eligibility under the law governing benefits in the particular federal programs, in violation of equal protection guarantees of the 5th Amendment.”

The current lawsuit concerns only couples who are legally married and have received marriage licenses, and at present Massachusetts (see Murky Waters ) and Connecticut (see Employers Not Prepared for CT Civil Union Law ) are the only states where marriage is legal for same-sex couples. The lawsuit does not address civil unions or other forms of domestic partnerships some gay and lesbian couples have adopted, according to the FederalTimes report.

The report says that Dean Hara of Boston, the husband of the late Congressman Gerry Studds, D-Mass., is one of the lawsuit's 19 plaintiffs. Studds died in 2006, and Hara has not been able to receive his late husband's congressional pension, health insurance and other benefits, GLAD said in a release .

Nonfederal plaintiffs in the case are arguing they should receive other benefits the federal government provides, such as:

  • the ability to file joint federal income tax returns,
  • sponsor a spouse for citizenship, and
  • receive Social Security survivor benefits after a spouse dies.

The General Accounting Office issued a report in 2004 concluding that 1,138 federal laws distinguish based on marital status (a discussion of those that impact benefits is HERE ). See also Report Clarifies Effect of State Same-sex Marriage Laws on Social Security .

The Office of Personnel Management, one of the defendants, said Congress would have to change DOMA before it could offer same-sex benefits. "OPM is not free to extend coverage to domestic partners or legally married partners, even though a union may be recognized by state law," OPM spokesman Mike Orenstein said, according to the FederalTimes report.

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) and 19 co-sponsors introduced the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act of 2007, legislation to extend benefits to domestic partners of federal employees (see Bill for Federal Employee Domestic Partner Benefits Introduced ).