WASHINGTON -- Liz Matzinger works for NASA but gets her medical coverage from Montgomery County. The reason: The Maryland school district offers health insurance benefits to same-sex partners and the federal government doesn't.
President Barack Obama took a modest step Wednesday night to remedy that disparity. He issued a memorandum intended to clarify the government's antidiscrimination and job-benefit policies. But he stopped short of giving gay partners of federal employees the same level of benefits that opposite-sex spouses receive because current law forbids it.
As a result, his action, which some saw as a hasty response to growing criticism from gay supporters, got a decidedly chilly response from one of those it was intended to impress.
"Anything less than full health insurance is just not good enough. ... I think a lot of us are very angry," said Matzinger, 29, an aerospace engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center who enthusiastically backed Obama in the election last year.
In a brief Oval Office ceremony, Obama said he would "work tirelessly" to expand the rights of gay Americans.
Obama said his memo would require supervisors to grant federal workers sick leave to care for domestic partners, a privilege that they already enjoy but often must depend on a boss's whim to use. Domestic partners of federal employees could be added to the long-term care insurance program, according to a White House fact sheet.
The president announced his support for legislation that would give same-sex partners of federal workers the same benefits that opposite-sex spouses receive. And he said he'd work with Congress to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, though he stopped short of saying he'd propose legislation to repeal it.
Gay-rights organizations erupted last week after learning that the Justice Department had filed a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which provides that the federal government will honor only marriages between a man and a woman. The Obama administration has said that until the law is changed, the government would continue to defend it in court.
The president campaigned on a pledge to overturn the law and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rules.
The presidential memorandum drew a positive response from Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which calls itself the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization. Solmonese, who demanded last week that Obama send legislation to Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, praised Obama's action as "a welcome and long overdue step" and was among a dozen activists, lawmakers and administration officials at the president's desk as he signed the memo.
But Cleve Jones, a California activist, said Obama was "scrambling to try to make up for their absurdly insulting brief on DOMA."
"We want full equality," said Jones, organizer of a gay rights march on Washington this fall. "This latest announcement is a great illustration of why we have to change the debate on this issue."
John Berry, who oversees the federal civil service as director of the Office of Personnel Management, said the president's action was "not in response in any way to any outside pressure."
Berry, the highest-ranking openly gay member of the Obama administration, was evasive when pressed repeatedly on a conference call with reporters to explain whether any new benefits were being extended as a result of Obama's action.
"This is a first step, not a final step," said Berry, a University of Maryland graduate and former aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.
The federal government lags behind many private companies and local and state governments, such as Maryland's, in providing benefits to same-sex couples.
An estimated 50,000 gay federal employees, out of a civilian work force of 1.9 million, would be affected by an expansion of benefits, said Leonard Hirsch, a Smithsonian Institution official and president of the Federal Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Employees organization.
Hirsch, who also attended the signing ceremony, said he was alive today because his husband, also a Smithsonian employee, could use paid leave to help Hirsch cope with kidney failure earlier this year.
"He was able to take the time to be there to deal with the doctors, the nurses and everything," said Hirsch.
Richard Klein of Rockville, who works at the Food and Drug Administration, tempered his initial enthusiasm for Obama's action after learning the details. But he pronounced himself happy with the president's public statement of support for ending federal workplace discrimination.
"It's a step, and that's a good thing," said Klein, who would not be affected by an expansion of benefits as long as he and his partner both remain at the FDA. "It shows an effort on the part of the administration that I think is positive."