Reporting from Washington — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton won praise in June after pushing to extend many federal benefits traditionally provided to diplomats' spouses to gay and lesbian partners.
Since then, unmarried heterosexual couples have been lining up to ask for benefits too. They have approached the State Department's personnel office and the diplomats' union, arguing that they are entitled to equal treatment. At least one couple has threatened to challenge the rules in court as discriminatory.
FOR THE RECORD:
Benefits for gays: An article in Section A on Dec. 26 about the U.S. government extending some family benefits to the partners of gay American diplomats, and whether unmarried heterosexual partners should receive them too, said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) supports benefits for unmarried heterosexual couples. Berman has supported extending some benefits to gay couples, but he does not support extending them to unmarried heterosexuals. —
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for policy on federal workers, is weighing such an extension of benefits, U.S. officials say -- to the consternation of conservatives.
"They should have seen this coming," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who had opposed extending benefits to gays. "It's a Pandora's box."
The family benefits, although a small part of diplomats' overall benefit package, are important to Foreign Service officers. Benefits include paid travel for the partner to and from overseas posts; visas and diplomatic passports; emergency medical treatment; shipment of household possessions; emergency evacuation in times of danger; and education benefits for minor children. Health insurance is not included for gay partners, although spouses are covered.
Foreign Service officers contend such help is only fair, especially given the conditions they face in remote and often uncomfortable posts.
Conservatives who oppose easing the rules cite the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Passed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton, it defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and says that no state shall be required to recognize a gay marriage performed in another state.
"A good argument can be made that even these relatively limited steps violate at least the spirit of the Defense of Marriage Act," said Peter Sprigg, a fellow at the Family Research Council, which advocates for socially conservative causes.
He said the pressure from unmarried heterosexual couples "illustrates one of our concerns -- that once you open the door to anyone other than married couples, you're beginning a process of the deconstruction of marriage."
Michelle Schohn, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, said her group was cautioned during the closing days of the George W. Bush administration about the consequences of demanding family benefits for same-sex partners.
"If you included opposite-sex domestic partners, you could potentially be running afoul of [the Defense of Marriage Act] by creating this 'marriage light' category," she said.
Nationally, most employers -- including almost all public employers -- that extend benefits to same-sex partners also offer them to unmarried, opposite-sex partners, said Ilse de Veer, a principal in the international consulting group Mercer.
Those that offer benefits to same-sex partners but not to opposite-sex mates typically cite heterosexual couples' option of marriage, de Veer said.
Unwed heterosexual couples in the United States comprise about 10% of opposite-sex couples living together, census data show.
Schohn said her group supported extending benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples. "They're our natural allies," she said.
The American Foreign Service Assn., the diplomats' union, has not yet taken a position, said spokesman Tom Switzer, but it "has heard from a number of members who believe that the same benefits should be extended to opposite-sex, unmarried partners as well."
A senior State Department official said any benefit extension was up to the White House.
"We're prepared to take that step if that's what the White House wants to do," the official said.
In June, Obama signed a presidential memorandum extending family benefits to same-sex partners -- a concept opposed by Bush's administration.
The issue gained visibility in 2007 when the former U.S. ambassador to Romania, Michael Guest, quit the Foreign Service in protest over the issue.
Supporters of extending benefits to unmarried heterosexuals include such key Congress members as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and the committee's top Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
Obama's June memorandum omitted health insurance and pension benefits for same-sex partners. Federal officials estimate that including the broader benefits would have cost $56 million in 2010, several times the price of the narrower benefits.
Some legal experts say including the broader benefits could violate the Defense of Marriage Act -- a law that Obama has said should be repealed.