President Obama this week will expand the rights of gay workers by allowing them to take family and medical leave to care for sick or newborn children of same-sex partners, administration officials said Monday.

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WASHINGTON — President Obama this week will expand the rights of gay workers by allowing them to take family and medical leave to care for sick or newborn children of same-sex partners, administration officials said Monday.

The policy will be set forth in a ruling to be issued Wednesday by the Labor Department’s wage-and-hour division, the officials said.

Under a 1993 law, people who work for a company with 50 or more employees generally are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or for a spouse, son or daughter with “a serious health condition.”

The new ruling indicates an employee in a same-sex relationship can qualify for leave to care for the child of his or her partner, even if the worker has not adopted the child legally.

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The ruling, in a formal opinion letter, tackles a question not explicitly addressed in the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. It also is one of many actions taken by the Obama administration to respond to concerns of gay men and lesbians within the constraints of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman as husband and wife.

Under the radar

Obama has quietly used his powers in the past 17 months to expand federal rights and benefits for gays and lesbians, targeting one government restriction after another in an attempt to change public policy while avoiding a confrontation with Republicans and opponents of gay rights.

The result is that scores of federal rules blocking gay rights have been swept aside or reinterpreted by Obama officials eager to advance the agenda of a constituency that strongly backed the president’s 2008 campaign.

Among the changes: Gay partners of federal workers now will receive long-term health insurance, access to day care and other benefits. Federal Housing Authority loans no longer can consider the sexual orientation of applicants. The Census Bureau plans to report the number of people who report being in a same-sex relationship. Hospitals must allow gays to visit their ill partners. And federal child-care subsidies can be used by the children of same-sex domestic partners.

Individually, none of the changes is especially dramatic. Taken together, however, they significantly alter the way gays and lesbians are viewed under federal law.

The administration’s effort, made largely under the radar — and outside the reach of Congress — has alarmed opponents of gay rights, who accuse the president of undermining traditional marriage even as he speaks about respecting it.

“He’s been a supporter of married mothers and fathers in name only,” said Jenny Tyree, a marriage analyst for CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. “He speaks very passionately and touchingly about how he grew up without a father. And yet there is this huge disconnect in how he’s undermining that same opportunity for other children.”

But gay-rights advocates have greeted the changes as evidence that Obama has not abandoned them — even as he has frustrated some by failing to act quickly on campaign promises to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act and bring an end to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“The administration is moving the executive branch to really provide interpretations that will change the lives of millions of [lesbian and gay] people for the better,” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign.

Obama’s orders have relied largely on authority the president has to reshape the federal government, much in the way that George W. Bush used the levers of the federal bureaucracy to relax government restrictions on oil-and-gas exploration on federally protected land.

Obama remains under pressure from some members of the gay community to move more quickly and forcefully on the major battles with Congress. A group of activists interrupted his speech at a Democratic fundraiser in California last month, yelling that he should do more to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

He probably will hear similar complaints Tuesday night, when he hosts a Gay and Lesbian Pride Month event at the White House for the second year in a row.

States’ policies vary

Administration officials are quick to note their legislative successes. The president signed a federal hate-crimes bill into law that for the first time provides protections against crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation. And the Senate is one vote away from ending the military’s controversial policy on service by gays and lesbians.

Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, another advocacy group, estimated that 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families were raising 2 million children.

The upshot of the Labor Department policy, she said, is that “if you act like a parent, do the work of a parent and raise a child like a parent, then you are a parent for the purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act.”

Federal law does not recognize same-sex relationships, but Labor Department lawyers have concluded that people in such relationships may qualify for family and medical leave when they act as parents, sharing the care and support of a child.

Many employers, including scores of large companies, provide benefits more comprehensive than those required by federal law.

At present, said Chrisler, a lesbian and mother of twin boys in Massachusetts, “states have a hodgepodge of laws on same-sex couples and their relationships to their children.”

In some states, adoption by same-sex couples is allowed. In others, it is not. And in many states, the law is unclear.

Washington state law allows gay individuals as well as same-sex couples to adopt children.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill that would amend the 1993 law to allow workers to take leave to care for a domestic partner or a same-sex spouse. The bill would expand the definition of “spouse” to include “a same-sex spouse as determined under applicable state law.”

Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.

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