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Editorial: Federal tax benefits for gay couples fair, right

The federal government recently shored up one of the areas where legally married gay couples are treated unequally. The U.S. Treasury Department announced that same-sex couples married in states that have adopted gay marriage can file their federal income taxes like all married couples. This holds true even if they move to a state where such unions are still outlawed.

The ruling will apply to all federal tax provisions, such as filing status, dependency exemptions, employee benefits and individual retirement accounts. That’s great news for couples in Washington and the other 12 states where gay marriage laws have been adopted.

It’s a logical step in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA outlawed equal consideration of federal benefits in many areas – taxes, insurance and immigration among them – for same-sex couples. Before being struck down, these provisions represented a loud and shameful declaration from the halls of Congress that gay Americans are second-class citizens.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the feds got busy. In August, the federal Office of Personnel Management paved the way for survivor benefits for spouses of federal employees in same-sex marriages. Now, such couples will be treated equally when filing their federal taxes. They can even file amended returns for the past three years.

But this isn’t the end. There are more than 1,000 laws that confer benefits based on marital status, and they also need to be revised for fairness. They involve such programs as Social Security, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs.

States could help matters by adopting gay marriage laws.

The Treasury Department ruling on tax filings does not extend to states that offer civil unions, registered domestic partnerships or other legal arrangements that fall short of marriage. Gay couples hitched in those locales will still be treated as second-class citizens.

That ought to be a sufficient rejoinder to those who say they support equal rights but want to protect the definition of marriage. The common refrain is, “Why can’t they be satisfied with civil unions?” This resistance comes with real consequences for same-sex couples.

Perhaps greater awareness of these inequities will cause states to reconsider their resistance to gay marriage. In the meantime, it might be wise for same-sex couples to travel to states in which gay marriage is legal and make it official, because a marriage certificate confers more federal benefits than whatever “good-enough” document they had to settle for.

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