The new law allows a $250,000 federal benefit for survivors of public safety officers to be paid to any beneficiary listed on the victim's life insurance policy. Until now, the money has been available only to spouses, children and parents.
Gay activists had lobbied for the bill, and the Justice Department had objected to it, saying in a letter to Congress that the benefit had been designed for immediate survivors with pressing needs and that the bill was "likely to create unintended and unfortunate results."
David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national gay organization, said he hopes the new law will be "the beginning of government recognition that gay families deserve the same rights and privileges that non-gay families have."
Domestic partners are not included in other federal death benefits. Members of the military may leave their life insurance to anyone they wish, but government benefits can go only to a surviving spouse or child.
The new law is retroactive to September 11 and will apply in future cases.
The White House e-mail announcement said the new law "adds chaplains to the list of individuals eligible for the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program and allows life insurance beneficiaries to qualify as eligible survivors for death benefits if a public safety officer has no surviving spouse or child."
Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said the law respects the victims' wishes. "It is not a determination of legal status," he said. White House officials also noted that the law is similar to the government's September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which gives administrators discretion that could result in domestic partners receiving benefits.
The announcement has elicited heavy criticism from the Republican Party's right wing.
"Homosexual folks see this as a first step toward recognizing homosexuality on the same level as marriage, and that's what it will be used for," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Throughout June, gay federal employees have been permitted to use government buildings, and sometimes official time and e-mail, for events celebrating Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. However, Bush again declined to follow the lead of President Bill Clinton and sign a proclamation recognizing Pride Month.
Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, said gay activists had feared Bush would recind executive orders signed by Clinton that ban discrimination in the federal workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and prohibit the use of sexual orientation as a criterion for granting security clearance. The White House has made no move in that direction.
sident Bush has signed a bill permanently extending federal death benefits to same-sex couples for the first time. The bill allows death benefits to be paid to the domestic partners of firefighters and police officers who die in the line of duty.