Safety net of marriage should be for everyone

Marriage means love, commitment and family.

I didn’t really learn what else it means until my husband died almost 14 years ago. Legal marriage, as recognized by my state and country, means money. That’s cold-hearted, but true.

Strip away all the impassioned arguments about time-honored tradition, religion and cultural change. Think about what it means to be a tax-paying citizen of this country.

I qualified for Social Security survivor benefits after my husband’s death — no questions asked. I don’t get those benefits because I chose instead to work full-time. Our children have received survivor benefits.

The fact is, I had access to a huge safety net by virtue of having a marriage certificate along with a death certificate.

That’s the power of civil marriage — for straight couples. And that’s why I strongly favor allowing same-sex marriages to be recognized, not only in our state but by our nation. It’s only fair.

And it has nothing to do with any churches allowing or not allowing couples to exchange religious vows.

A bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Washington, which passed in the state Senate on Feb. 1, could win House approval as early as today. It has Gov. Chris Gregoire’s support to become law.

On Tuesday, a panel of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down California’s ban on same-sex marriage. That decision found that Proposition 8, a ballot measure limiting marriage to one man and one woman, was unconstitutional. It may bring the issue of gay marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anne Levinson is a Seattle attorney who headed the campaign for Referendum 71, a vote that in 2009 approved domestic partnership in Washington. Levinson said Tuesday that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, keeps the U.S. government from recognizing any states’ same-sex marriage laws. That would include a Washington gay-marriage law, if approved.

“Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, as it’s called, states that the federal government only respects marriages between a man and a woman, even if same-sex marriage is recognized by their home state,” Levinson said

The ramifications of no federal recognition of a marriage go far beyond Social Security survivor benefits.

Levinson said there are 1,138 federal laws in which marital status is a factor. Among the most obvious are Social Security protection if a spouse dies or becomes disabled; being able to file federal income tax returns jointly; death or disability benefits for spouses of veterans; and estate tax protections for spouses.

Marriage, she said, is “a critical legal safety net.”

Not having federal recognition of marriages “causes real harm to people,” said John Lewis, legal director of Marriage Equality USA, a California-based organization.

“When a straight person gets married, they have no idea that they’ve gotten a bundle of federal rights,” Lewis said. “Marriage vows speak of richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The federal laws provide some modicum of safety for families as they go through the inevitable vicissitudes of life.”

Lewis said it’s ironic that gay couples, because they can’t file federal income tax returns jointly, often pay higher taxes than others, yet don’t get as many federal benefits.

This battle is about benefits and fairness, but more than that it’s about dignity.

“Marriage is more than a contract,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage. The group is working to pass the same-sex marriage bill in Olympia. “It’s about commitment, dedication and family. Everyone knows what you mean when you say you’re married.”

Silk has heard stories about people in domestic partnerships having difficulty getting employee benefits or struggling with hospital staff over visiting a partner.

“Marriage has immediate currency,” he said.

“In addition to all these hardships that hurt a family financially and legally, marriage is meaningful,” Levinson said. “It’s the commitment of two people who love each other.

“No one gets down on one knee and says, ‘Would you be my domestic partner?’” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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