Last month, the "Respect for Marriage Act" was introduced by congressional Democrats. The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., among others, would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and end federal discrimination of couples in a legally recognized marriage.
Given the current political landscape in Congress, it’s unlikely to be enacted anytime soon. Still, it reminds us that this rather simple issue of civil rights continues to clutter Congress.
The subject of same-sex marriage always elicits deep emotion. The arguments against are largely based upon religious ideals, an area where people feel passionately. But religious dogma really has no bearing on a legally recognized union. Remove the romanticism, the church bells, the ceremony of a wedding and what’s left is a legal contract.
The truth is the real case for marriage equality is full of boring, mundane matters. Generally these concerns revolve around the realistic dealings of daily life – money, taxes, insurance. And yet, the fight surrounding gay marriage sways elections and remains divisive and contentious.
There are more than 1,100 benefits, rights and protections granted through a federally recognized marriage. Same-sex couples are not allowed these protections.
For example, gay couples are ineligible for an exemption on estate taxes. They cannot roll over 401(k) or IRA plans inherited from their partner. They cannot receive Social Security benefits upon the death of a partner. The Family Medical Leave Act doesn’t provide leave to care for a domestic partner. Partners of federal employees are excluded from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The U.S. does not recognize same-sex partnerships for the purposes of immigration.
Thumbing through the varying state-level laws regarding same-sex unions, one will find vast discrepancies and inconsistencies.
Six states recognize same-sex marriage as fully legal and binding. Three states recognize the marriages but are currently not performing them while their legality is debated in the courts.
Several states allow for some form of civil union or domestic partnership, though the rights granted through these unions differ in each state. Many states prohibit the marriages altogether by statute, others by constitutional amendment. Other states remain ambiguous with no statute or amendment regulating the recognition of same-sex unions.
These conflicting laws undoubtedly create a sense of insecurity for affected families. Moreover, they create a sense of ineptitude and discord in our legal system. The inconsistency in something as fundamental as marriage reveals a distinct lack of unity within the country.
A couple’s marital status should not change simply because they drive across a state border. This is not a question to be defined by individual states. The definition of marriage should be federally established and recognized unequivocally throughout the country.
Sanctioning gay marriage is hardly cutting edge liberalism. The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Canada and South Africa have all extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. And numerous countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Croatia, Israel, Iceland and others grant gay couples nationally recognized protections and rights.
Where the topic strays from the logical is when religion is introduced. Though some people view marriage as a religious as well as a legal matter, the issue of legality is the only one being disputed. If gay couples were allowed to marry, religious organizations would be free to perform or refuse to perform any wedding ceremony – just as they are now.
Each religion would still be free to decide what its feels is a marriage in the eyes of its god.
For such an innovative, venerable country, the United States has fallen woefully behind on this issue. All families must be protected by consistent and coherent laws. Comprehensive marriage equality is not only compassionate, it’s common sense.
Kris Coyner is an activist for immigration justice and civil rights. She and her partner are raising 1-year-old triplet daughters near Shelton. A member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.