Same-sex married couples across the U.S. now have access to federal benefits that the government previously could not extend, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Thursday. In light of the Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay and lesbian unions nationwide, Justice Department staff has been directed to work with agencies to ensure that veterans, retirement and disability benefits are equally available, Lynch said in a statement.
“Thanks to their leadership and the quick work of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, today I am proud to announce that the critical programs for veterans and elderly and disabled Americans … will now provide federal recognition for all marriages nationwide,” Lynch’s statement reads. She also said the agencies are working on guidance for field offices that will reflect the change in marriage law.
A previous 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. United States voided most of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from granting all marriage benefits to gay and lesbian couples. But Windsor did not make federal benefits available in states where same-sex unions legally performed out of state were not recognized.
“Just over a year ago, Attorney General [Eric] Holder announced that agencies across the federal government had implemented the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision by treating married same-sex couples the same as married opposite-sex couples to the greatest extent possible under the law as it then stood. With the Supreme Court’s new ruling that the Constitution requires marriage equality, we have now taken the further step of ensuring that all federal benefits will be available equally to married couples in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories."
The Obergefell decision, issued by the court June 26, struck down all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage and required states to recognize all out-of-state marriages. Backed by opponents of gay marriage, Republican state lawmakers have enacted laws that would allow judges, clerks and pastors to refuse validation of same-sex unions, if doing so would offend their religious beliefs.
Those laws won’t have any bearing on access to federal benefits for same-sex couples. “The department will continue to work across the administration to fulfill our commitment to equal treatment for all Americans, including equal access to the benefits of marriage that the Obergefell decision guarantees,” Lynch said.