Same-Sex Marriage Rights A Priority For Federal Government, But For Many Getting Married Is Easier Said Than Done

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Lynn Herre (left) and her partner Jana Mark watch the Utah Pride Parade in Salt Lake City June 8, 2014. A Utah federal judge overturned the state's ban on gay marriage last December, promoting a cascade of similar rulings in more than a dozen other states. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been pushing through greater same-sex marriage protections to federal employees. But because 31 states don't recognize gay marriage, qualified couples still have to travel to one of he 19 states that recognize marriage to obtain the marriage licenses that allow them to qualify for these federal protections.

With more than 1,000 different federal marriage rights – from tax benefits to the right to be interred together in national cemeteries – it can be hard to pick which ones are the most valuable.

For Stuart Gaffney, spokesperson for Marriage Equality USA, the biggest financial benefit for him and his husband is being covered on the same health insurance policy.

Gaffney, who’s been married to his husband for 27 years (“legally since 2008,” he says), points out the ability to share insurance as spouses has lowered the couple’s taxes because the benefit extended to his husband is no longer treated as income.

“People get married because they love each other and I would do [it] for that reason alone, but there are a lot of practical benefits,” Gaffney told International Business Times by phone Friday.

“You do need to be legally married to be recognized for the rights the federal government is extending. The good news is more and more states have marriage equality. But if you live in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, then it does require you to travel to an equality state to get married.”

Gay federal employees have been excluded from a 21-year-old law that gives their heterosexual co-workers extended unpaid leave to care for a sick spouse or other close family member without losing their jobs or health care benefits.

On Friday, the Department of Labor began fixing this inequality in line with President Barack Obama’s efforts over the past year to use his executive powers to extend LGBT rights and protections across federal government agencies.

“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,” Evan Wolfson, president of  marriage equality advocacy group Freedom to Marry, told the New York Times on Friday.

But one major sticking point lingers: Federal marriage equality protections extend only to same-sex couples who are legally married, and they still can’t get married in 31 states.

Since a year-old landmark Supreme Court decision in United States vs. Windsor that struck down a 17-year-old federal law defining marriage only in heterosexual terms, the White House has extended marriage equality to gay immigrants, active service members, and, soon, employees of federal contractors.

But the White House can only go so far. A report by Attorney General Eric Holder released Friday outlines the measures that have been put in place since the historic Supreme Court ruling.

Last year, the Department of Defense gave gay enlisted soldiers paid time off to get married, even if it requires them to travel to another state, so that they can be eligible for rights granted married heterosexuals, such as military health benefits.

But the Justice Department report also said it’s limited in what it can do at two important federal agencies: Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs.

“For example, Social Security could deny certain claims of people who live in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, which means discriminatory state laws could lead to denial of federal benefits,” Susan Sommer, national director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, a LGBT rights legal counsel group.

In order to get full marriage equality, rights groups like Lambda say all 50 states need to be covered. To do that will require another Supreme Court decision similar to Loving vs. Virginia, which in 1957 barred all states from discriminating against interracial married couples.

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