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Spin Control

Court ruling expands rights for WA same-sex couples

OLYMPIA – Supporters of Washington’s same-sex marriage law called Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions a major step forward for gay and lesbian couples, but warned it’s not the end of the road. There are more than 1,000 federal rules and regulations that will have to be studied, and likely more court battles ahead.

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

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

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. . .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 care 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, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said. 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. A same-sex couple married in Washington who later retires to Arizona, which does not recognize that marriage, could lose some survivor benefits when one spouse dies.

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

Washington state filed “friend of the court” briefs in both the challenge of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said same sex couples in Washington found themselves being denied federal benefits, just as the couple in that case. “It was important for Washington’s voice to be heard,” 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 prepared statement.

Being recognized as legally married has some tax consequences for same-sex couples; some may pay less but others may pay more, Murray said.

Jinkins said it may cost her and her partner more but she’s so happy to be able mark her 1040 as married, filing jointly that “I don’t care.” 

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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