Should Unmarried Straight Couples Get Domestic Partner Benefits?S

According to some in the Foreign Service, the answer is yes. Hillary Clinton successfully pushed to extend spousal benefits to gay partners of Foreign Service employees — and now straight partners want in on the action.

Paul Richter of the LA Times writes that Obama responded to Clinton's advice by signing a memorandum in June giving gay domestic partners of Foreign Service members some — but not all — of the benefits enjoyed by heterosexual spouses. These benefits include paid travel to postings overseas, emergency medical care and evacuation, and education for children. They don't include regular health insurance or pension benefits, because providing these would have cost the government $56 million in 2010 — apparently too high a price to pay for fairness.

It's fairness, however, that unmarried straight couples are now citing. They want the same benefits as unmarried gay couples, and one pair has threatened to sue the Foreign Service for discrimination. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management is considering the issue, and one State Department official said, "We're prepared to take that step if that's what the White House wants to do."

Of course, some people are bound to see this as another step towards goats marrying chickens and the total breakdown of American society. Republican Rep. Steve King says that the Foreign Service "should have seen this coming" when it extended benefits to gays, and that "it's a Pandora's box." And Peter Sprigg of the conservative Family Research Council says the unmarried straight couples' argument "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."

It's hard to sympathize with someone who talks about a "Pandora's box" of education for children, or with those who seem to believe that restricting emergency evacuation benefits somehow defends marriage. It's certainly romantic to force couples to get hitched in exchange for a chopper ride out of a war zone. That said, given the prohibitions against gay marriage in this country, it's hard to view the lack of benefits for straight domestic partners as the primary discrimination here. According to consultant Ilse de Veer, most companies that offer benefits to gay partners also extend them to unmarried straight ones — but those that don't do so point out that straight couples do have the freedom to marry.

Giving gay couples benefits isn't necessarily a recognition that all unmarried couples should receive them — although maybe they should. Instead, it's a (partial) remedy for the fact that most gay people can't currently marry, and are thus barred from many of the advantages straight married couples take for granted. It would probably be smart and fair for all employers to adopt certain standards of domestic partnership, regardless of gender, rather than tying any benefits to marriage itself — an institution that has taken on political weight far beyond its effectiveness at advancing any sort of family-values agenda. This might be the first step toward making "marriage" a religious and social institution rather than a legal one, something that would probably be good for everybody. But until that happens, the greatest discrimination is against those who are excluded by others' prejudice from all the benefits currently attendant on marriage — not those who could marry but choose not to do so.

Benefits For Gays? Us Too, Say The Unwed [LA Times]