Why It Matters

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the “Defense of Marriage Act” seems to be another major step toward normalizing same-sex marriage in our country–something now favored by most Americans.

I know plenty of kind good-hearted people who oppose making same-sex marriages lawful, but I admit that I have trouble understanding their reasoning.  For everyone I know who is opposed, their opposition is religious.  That is to say, their religious beliefs include opposition to homosexuality and therefore they don’t believe gay people should be allowed to get married.  I see that as a non sequitur.  Opponents of gay marriage commonly claim that  it is a threat to heterosexual marriage (thus the “defense of marriage” Act).  That argument makes no sense to me at all.

But I’m sure my friends in the other camp are as puzzled by my views as I am by theirs.

I’m OK with that.  I think sincere differences of opinion on matters of public policy can be healthy for society.  As long as our discussions are civil and our dialogue constructive, it is appropriate that we debate these things as we seek to come to a national consensus.

All that is by way of introduction to something I read recently, which helps show why I’ve come to see this as a civil rights issue, rather than merely an issue of personal morality.  For better or worse, we have a set of laws in this country that favor married people over single people.  It might well be better for us if those laws didn’t exist.  If marriage was strictly a religious bond, or a matter of private contract, then this debate would be moot.  But it isn’t.  It comes with a body of government-provided legal privileges, which are denied to gay people if they are denied the opportunity to marry.

Here’s a list of some of the legal advantages that come with marriage, taken from HERE.  Note that these are federal laws only.  Each state, of course, also has its own additional body of laws favoring married citizens.

Married people can:

  • Inherit a spouse’s estate without paying taxes. This was the issue at the heart of the DOMA case, Windsor v. United States. Edith Windsor had to pay estate taxes after her wife died, which the Supreme Court judged to be unconstitutional.
  • File jointly for bankruptcy, eliminating the debt for both spouses.
  • Qualify to take leave to care for a spouse with a serious medical condition if the job is protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Under spousal testimonial privilege, one spouse can’t be forced to testify against the other in court.
  • File joint tax returns. In some cases this will increase the couple’s tax bill; in other cases it will decrease it.
  • Get divorced.
  • Deduct alimony payments from federal income tax.
  • Qualify for Medicare based on a spouse’s employment.
  • Qualify for health plans under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program if one spouse is a member of the uniformed services.
  • Sponsor a spouse for an immigration visa.
  • Qualify for benefits if one spouse is or has been an employee of the federal government. These benefits vary but include health insurance (including dental and vision) and long-term care insurance.
  • Receive specific Social Security benefits, such as the “surviving spouse benefit,” under which a person can choose to either continue receiving his or her own Social Security payment or collect that of his or her spouse.
  • Receive veterans benefits, which include health care, dependency and indemnity compensation, and educational assistance programs.
  • Delay enrollment in Medicare Part B (hospital insurance) and D (prescription drug coverage) if one spouse is still working and has a health plan. Otherwise a person could incur a penalty for not enrolling upon turning 65.
  • Veterans’ spouses can get priority over nonveterans in job training programs, qualify to receive educational assistance, receive medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and get a memorial headstone paid for by the U.S. government

These laws, and many others, confer advantages and privileges on married people.  Those privileges are only available to folks whose marriages are accepted as valid by the government.  If gay people are not allowed to marry, then these government-provided privileges are available only to heterosexuals.  In other words, we have created a set of legal advantages and categorically denied them to citizens born with a particular characteristic–in this case a gay sexual orientation.  That just seems unfair, and unAmerican, regardless of whatever religious opinions some Americans should have about such people.

That, I think, is a major reason why this tide has turned.

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