"As long as they were legally married in the state where the marriage occurred, they're regarded as married," said John Marble, a spokesman for the federal Office of Personnel Management, or OPM.
Last week, the OPM issued a memo to federal agencies stating that "benefits coverage is now available to a legally married same-sex spouse of a Federal employee ... regardless of the employee’s or annuitant’s state of residency."
Some gay couples who work for the federal government were in limbo in the days following the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. For more than a decade, the act, also known as DOMA, prohibited federal agencies from extending marriage benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, even in states where same-sex marriage is legal. Even after the court's rulings, state bans on gay marriage, including the one in Alabama, remained in place. That raised the question of whether the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages among federal employees in states with gay marriage bans.
Marble said the OPM ruling would apply to all federal employees, including civilians, who work for the executive branch of the federal government. That would likely cover most federal employees in Alabama.
"That does include the Army, the Air Force, FEMA and NASA," Marble said.
Approximately 4,300 Calhoun County residents were working for the federal government in May, according to the state Department of Labor. The county is home to Anniston Army Depot and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Center for Domestic Preparedness.
Other major centers of federal employment in the state include the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and Fort Rucker in Dale County. The Phenix City area is also home to many federal employees who work at Fort Benning in nearby Columbus, Ga.
The OPM ruling is meant to apply to all federal employees, Marble said, though it wasn't yet clear whether it would be adopted in federal courthouses or for congressional staff working in Alabama.
"We can speak only for the executive branch," Marble said.
It's not clear how many local federal employees are in same-sex marriages. Anniston Army Depot spokeswoman Clester Burdell said depot officials wouldn't have that number, because applications for marriage benefits go directly to the Army Benefits Center, a separate agency.
And, of course, same-sex couples haven't been applying for marriage benefits in the past.
"I don't know if we have captured that information," said Terri Stover, a spokeswoman for Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. "That's a new question."
Stover and Burdell both declined to confirm that marriage benefits would be available to same-sex couples working at their installations. So did Maj. John Redfield, spokesman for Air University at Maxwell AFB. All three said those questions should be answered by Pentagon spokespeople. Attempts to reach Lt. Cdr. Nathan Christensen, spokesman the Defense Department’s personnel office, were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Burdell, of Anniston Army Depot, did say the depot had received new guidance from the Office of Personnel Management last week, and would be announcing it to employees soon.
Federal employees who want immediate recognition of their same-sex marriages must apply for marriage benefits by Aug. 26, according to the OPM memo. That's because federal authorities are treating all same-sex marriages as if they were new marriages solemnized on June 26, the date of the Supreme Court decision.
"It's being treated as a 'life event' for benefits purposes," Marble said.
Couples who miss the Aug. 26 deadline will have another chance to apply during open benefits enrollment for federal employees, later this year, the OPM letter states.
There were 6,582 same-sex couples in Alabama who identified themselves as such in the 2010 Census, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The study found 190 same-sex couples in Calhoun County, though it's not clear how many of those self-reported couples were legally married in same-sex-marriage states.
There are four same-sex couples for every 1,000 households in Calhoun County, the study found. That placed Calhoun fourth among Alabama's counties in the number of same-sex couples per thousand households. Only Jefferson, Mobile and Montgomery counties ranked higher.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.