(CBS) President Obama, who has come under heavy fire from gay rights groups in recent weeks, this evening signed a presidential memorandum that extends certain benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
The president said the move "paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation's pursuit of equality," though he acknowledged "this is only one step."
"Hundreds of Fortune 500 companies already offer such benefits not only because it's the right thing to do, but because they recognize that it helps them compete for and retain the best possible talent -- and we need top talent serving their country right now more than ever," he said.
The president also announced his support for the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, which he described as "crucial legislation that will guarantee these rights for all federal employees."
The remarks marked Mr. Obama's first significant comments on gay rights issues as president. While he heralded the move as an "historic step," many gay rights advocates have dismissed it as a minor action that only affects a small number of people and is designed to quell outrage over the president's lack of action on a number of issues important to the gay community.
They noted that health insurance benefits will still not be extended to gay partners and questioned whether the announcement has any real impact, since many of the benefits announced Wednesday have been available to some partners of gay federal employees since the Clinton administration.
Office of Personnel Management director John Berry addressed criticisms of the move in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, saying the president's announcement means Mr. Obama is "conferring a mandatory right" that was previously "subject to the whim of a supervisor." (ShowMeNoHate note: Hillary Clinton already provided benefits across the board to her State Department LGTBQ married employees. )
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