(Reuters) - The Department of Labor on Wednesday said same-sex couples in legal marriages can participate in employee benefit plans, even if the state they live in does not recognize gay marriage.
Same-sex spouses, regardless of where they live, can now participate in the private retirement and healthcare plans overseen by the department's Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), the department said in a release.
The move comes after the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision in United States v. Windsor, which extended federal benefits to those in same-sex marriages.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez called the ruling a "historic step forward" and said the department would work to implement it in a way providing "maximum protection" for American workers.
"By providing greater clarity on how the Supreme Court's decision affects one of the laws we enforce, we are contributing to greater equality and greater protection for America's working families," EBSA Assistant Secretary Phyllis Borzi said.
EBSA oversees 701,000 private retirement plans and 2.3 million health plans, according to the department.
Perez said in an August email sent to department employees that the agency had begun to prepare its response to the Supreme Court ruling. One of its first determinations was that same-sex couples would be covered by the Family Medical Leave Act.
But at that point, Perez did not say whether it would apply to same-sex couples who were legally married in one jurisdiction but who were currently residing in jurisdictions where their marriages were not recognized.
Gay rights advocates hailed the department's decision to adopt a "state of celebration" rule, which recognizes all legally married couples regardless of location, in determining eligible benefit plan participants.
"We urge Secretary Perez and the Labor Department to push for full legal equality, and re-write the Family Medical Leave Act regulations to adopt these same ‘state of celebration' rules so that all married couples - no matter where they live - can have job protections," said Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work, a gay rights group, in a statement.
Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Ken Wills