April 15, 2008
Accessing those 1,200 federal benefits (II)
Posted by: Andoni
If you remember, I was delighted to learn that both Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, advocate extending the 1,200 federal benefits of marriage to gay couples who are in civil unions -- even though neither supports gay marriage per se.
But I wondered why we haven’t heard any follow-up on this or seen any action from our national organizations, especially since the two candidates themselves gave us an opening. I also wondered what the best way to implement those 1,200 federal benefits would be.
After e-mailing my questions to all our national organizations, I heard back from my friend Matt Coles, Director of the Lesbian & Gay Rights Project of the ACLU. He told me to stop fretting; they are prepared.
He said the best way to start the ball rolling is for
Congress to repeal "part 3" of DOMA, which prohibits the federal
government from recognizing state sanctioned same-sex marriages. That would
immediately make the gays married in Massachusetts (and those New Yorkers who
married in Canada) eligible for those federal benefits --- everything from filing
joint tax returns, to
inheriting property better treatment under the estate tax, to obtaining surviving spouse social security benefits,
to immigration rights, etc. -- all 1,200 of them.
Matt also feels that soon there will be two to four more states that will recognize gay marriage, so we're talking about a significant number of people here who would benefit.
Repealing DOMA "part 3" will not help those gays in states that have civil unions, however. For these people to gain federal benefits, a relatively simple (but not as easily passed) federal law would say: the term “marriage” in all federal laws includes civil unions and domestic partnerships created by states that have substantially the same definition, obligations and rights as a marriage in that state does. That would do it for states with civil unions and their equivalent domestic partnerships, as their called in California, Washington state and Washington, D.C.
So there you have it.
Unfortunately, all those (including your's truly) who live in states that don't have civil unions or even enacted constitutional amendments that prohibit same sex marriage, are basically out of luck . It would take a massive overhaul of federal law to cover us. The federal government would have to get into the civil union business; heretofore marriage and civil unions have been a state issue. Making a federal civil union law and having it mesh into all the state laws would be a nightmare.
For me, the best answer would be to simply move to another state rather than wait for this to happen.
The problem with this entire strategy, from repealing DOMA onward, is that Matt believes it would take a very active president, making these issues a very high priority and pushing hard to get them through. He believes none of it will happen before universal health care reform, which is a top priority of both Democrats, or ENDA, which remains the top priority of the Human Rights Campaign and congressional Democrats.
As Chris noted today, ENDA unfortunately is hobbling all our other efforts. My own view is that ENDA has become our community's Iraq. It was supposed to be small, limited in scope, quick and easy and here we are 14 years later stuck and going nowhere -- or even backwards.
It's using up movement resources and in spite of the obvious failure, no one at our national organizations will admit it and come up with a new federal strategy. At this point, I would even welcome a "surge" to get this done this year, so we can move on to better and more important things in the next Congress.
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