President Obama signaled Thursday that his administration would extend federal benefits to gay couples living in states that don’t recognize their marriages, a relief for advocates left with a thicket of uncertainty a day after their historic Supreme Court victory.
The president said the government should define marriage based on where a couple weds and not necessarily where they live — a definition of wedlock that’s essential to how the administration will implement the court’s decision Wednesday to strike a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
“It’s my personal belief — but I’m speaking now as a president as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple,” Obama told reporters at a news conference in Dakar, Senegal, on a trip to sub-Saharan Africa.
The president called the ruling a “victory for American democracy” and said he has directed his administration to “comb through every statute” to ensure that gay couples receive federal benefits for which they are now eligible.
The task is already proving daunting.
As jubilant same-sex couples scrambled to call attorneys and agencies and scour the Internet about new rights, officials across the government continued reviewing the 1,110 federal rights, benefits and obligations that marriage confers.
They range from Social Security and pension benefits to green cards for spouses who are not citizens. All but two are regulations the administration can change without congressional action. Social Security and veterans’ benefits are the two exceptions that may require Congress to make the legal changes to ensure that married same-sex couples get the benefits of those programs.
A White House official said the process will take time, but benefits for same-sex couples will come on a rolling basis.
But since the court stopped short of ruling that the right to marry must be extended to same-sex couples no matter where they live, state lines still determine who is legally married and who is not. And that’s where much is left for the Obama administration to interpret — and opponents of same-sex marriage to contest.
Thirty-seven states do not allow same-sex unions. Virtually every federal agency has a different standard for how it defines marriage, whether based on the place a couple weds or where they live. Some agencies do not address either definition, such as the Office of Personnel Management, which makes policy on benefits for 2 million federal employees.
The federal employee retirement law, for example, defines a marriage for retirement benefit purposes as one recognized in the jurisdiction “with the most significant interest in the marital status” of the individual, unless that law is contrary to federal policy, according to the Congressional Research Service.
A decision on which state has the “most significant interest” likely would take into account where the employee lived while working and during retirement, and where the person eventually died. Also taken into consideration would be where the couple had financial assets and where the surviving spouse lives, personnel experts say.