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Supreme Court opens doors for same-sex couples in Washington

OLYMPIA – Same-sex couples in Washington, one of the first states where voters legalized their marriages, stand to gain hundreds of legal benefits as federal courts and agencies weigh the implications of Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Supporters in Washington called decisions handed down by the high court a major step forward for gay and lesbian couples, but warned it’s not the end of the road.

“We’re on a long road and today was a Mach 1 step forward,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “It doesn’t mean we’re at the endpoint.”

When the Legislature approved a same-sex marriage law in spring 2012 and voters affirmed it in the November elections, that invalidated the state’s version of the Defense of Marriage Act. But same-sex couples weren’t eligible for some federal benefits, said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor.

They couldn’t file a joint return for their income taxes. Surviving spouses weren’t eligible for their deceased partner’s Social Security benefits. Federal employees couldn’t add same-sex spouses to their health insurance.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling opens those doors for same-sex couples. Whether a same-sex couple who are married in Washington will still be eligible for those benefits if they move to Idaho or some other state that doesn’t recognize their marriage is something the federal government will have to sort out.

“The Obama administration is going to have to write some rules or regulations on some of those,” Murray said.

The court invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act, but federal law has an estimated 1,138 different rights and obligations that depend on marital status, said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. Some, like immigration status, depend on where the couple’s marriage takes place, so an immigrant who marries an American resident in Washington state can retain his or her visa status regardless of where the couple moves.

Others, like eligibility for a spouse’s Social Security benefits, depend on where the person lives.

“It’s going to be a mess for a few years,” said Pedersen, an attorney.

Celebrating what they called a “historic and momentous” day, business leaders and activists in support of same-sex marriage gathered at the Inland Northwest LGBT Center on Wednesday afternoon. They, too, stressed the importance of the day’s rulings but noted much work still needed to be done.

“It is progress, not perfection,” said Michael Jepson, a board member of OutSpokane, an activist group that organizes the city’s pride parade. He has seen states go from passing laws outlawing the sale of alcohol to homosexuals to 13 states approving marriage for same-sex couples.

All at the LGBT center acknowledged laws elsewhere are not as friendly as in Washington state. But they said recent data showing same-sex couples purchased almost 20 percent of all marriage licenses in Washington since December should be an economic cue other states can’t ignore.

“What I would say to Idaho is that you’re missing out on a lot of revenue,” said Carol Ehrhart, co-chair of the LGBT Center.

Washington filed a “friend of the court” brief in the challenge of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“It was important for Washington’s voice to be heard,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire, who made the same-sex marriage bill a priority in her final year in office, said the court realized that same-sex families are equal under the law. “I thank them for never giving up and for not stopping an undeniable truth, that we are all indeed created equal,” she said in a statement.

Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this report.

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