Administration extends key federal protections to married same-sex couples
June 20, 2014
Today, the Obama administration announced that it will take additional steps to provide increased federal respect for same-sex couples’ legal marriages, including ensuring that same-sex couples can take leave from work to care for one another in times of emergency under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
United States Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a memo to President Obama:
The implementation of the Windsor decision across the entire federal government is an accomplishment that reflects countless hours of hard work, cooperation, and coordination across agencies. As additional issues arise, we will continue to work together to uphold this Administration’s fundamental commitment to equal treatment for all Americans, and to extend this fundamental equality to all Americans.
However, the administration stated that social security protections for married same-sex couples will remain unavailable in nearly all states that do not respect a couple’s marriage - and several protections for married veterans still remain unavailable.
Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson commented on the announcement today. He said:
Since the landmark Supreme Court decision last year in U.S. v. Windsor, the Obama Administration has moved with tremendous leadership, skill, and fidelity to the Constitution’s command of equality to implement a wide range of federal protections for married same-sex couples.
Gay couples who are married, like non-gay married couples, now share in the crucial federal safety-net of protections and responsibilities, even in states that continue to discriminate. But because of [that] ongoing marriage discrimination in 31 states, hundreds of thousands of couples continue to face the cruel denial of important Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Congress should move swiftly to pass curative legislation for our veterans and seniors, even as we look to the federal courts and the Supreme Court to secure the freedom to marry and equal protection nationwide. America is ready for the freedom to marry, and every day of denial is a day of hardship, injustice, and indignity. It’s time to end marriage discrimination once and for all.
Freedom to Marry worked closely with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, as well as others, to encourage and assist the Obama Administration in shifting the federal government from being the number one discriminator against gay people to, now, putting its moral and legal weight on the side of our families, the Constitution, and the freedom to marry. But it’s time for Congress, and especially the Supreme Court, to finish the job.
It's great news, signaling another step forward from the federal government, which has ensured that married same-sex couples, irrespective of where they live, are able to access many of the federal protections of marriage - including the ability to jointly file federal taxes and sponsor a spouse for immigration purposes. But it also highlights the ways that anti-marriage constitutional amendments in 31 states are hurting same-sex couples and their families. It again demonstrates the untenability of anti-marriage laws in the states and how the patchwork of laws is simply unsustainable.
Clark West and Elliot Mitchell in Sarasota, Florida (below) are just one of the married same-sex couples who will still face problems when it comes to accessing Social Security. The men have been together for 42 years, and last November, they finally got married in California. It was a great day for the couple - but because their home state of Florida does not respect their marriage, Clark won't be able to access Mitch's Social Security.
"If anything were to happen to me," Mitch explained, "Clark wouldn't be able to receive the Social Security survivors benefit, and that could really complicate things for him. It's a vulnerable situation to be in."
Read more about Clark and Mitch's story here.
The social security decision from this week makes it clear that married same-sex couples who apply for Social Security while living in a state with the freedom to marry will be able to access these protections - and if they were to ever move to a non-marriage state, the SSA would not reevaluate their status. But that doesn't help couples like Clark and Mitch, who in their 42 years together, have lived in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and now Florida - all states without marriage for same-sex couples. In order to receive the Social Security benefits they should be able to access, they would have to move to a state where same-sex couples can marry.
Doug Jones and Sandy Ceppos in Raleigh, NC (below) - who married in Maryland at a United Church of Christ and have been together for nearly 13 years - are another couple who won't be able to access critical Social Security protections until North Carolina extends the freedom to marry to all same-sex couples.
"Being an older married gay couple, we have different concerns from our younger peers and social security is at the top of the list," Sandy said. "In order to receive Social Security benefits, we would be required to move to a state where our marriage is recognized. I would have to give up my job of 23 years. We would have to leave behind our 4 grown children and 4 grandchildren. We would have to leave behind my 91-year-old mother. We would have leave behind our church, our friends and our home."
"The mélange of applicable federal laws is mind-boggling," Sandy continued, referencing his and Doug's experiences speaking out for marriage with the Campaign for Southern Equality. "It's like we need a score card. It’s impossible not to be thrilled with the progress we have made in recent years, but it’s impossible to feel equal, when we are not treated as equal."
Freedom to Marry applauds the Obama administration for working to implement the Windsor ruling as far as possible - but until married same-sex couples in every state are treated equally, and until all same-sex couples in every state have the freedom to marry, families will continue to be harmed.
It's time for the United States Supreme Court to end the harm and make it clear that same-sex couples nationwide should all be able to share in the freedom to marry.