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Obama leaves lasting legacy, advances LGBT equality

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Letter: Wisconsin Gazette presents revisionist history of the Clintons’ record on LGBT issues

In the 5 November 2015 editorial “In Defense of the Clintons’ record on LGBT issues,” the staff of the Gazette has presented fact-free, wishful thinking, revisionist history regarding the Clinton White House and its support for DOMA and DADT.

The editorial made the following statement: “Clinton signed DOMA with the hope of appeasing anti-gay activists and avoiding Republican threats of a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. And he succeeded.”

That is a patently false assertion without a shred of contemporary evidence to support it. Not a single document from the Clinton Justice Department, the Clinton White House staff, or documents marked with the reverse Clinton check mark indicating President Clinton reviewed the page backs up the false narrative that Clinton was trying to head off a constitutional ban on gay marriages when signing DOMA into law. None. I challenge the staff of the Wisconsin Gazette to either produce documentation or apologize for lying to Wisconsin’s progressive community.

Your credibility is on the line. The history you are reporting belongs in fact-free Texas tea party textbooks, not a credible progressive news publication.

And, pray tell, what about the Clinton White House was progressive exactly?  The five major pieces of legislation Bill Clinton signed into law were uniformly conservative:

1) NAFTA was a jobs killing free trade treaty supported by corporate Republicans.

2) Welfare reform was a conservative Republican idea Clinton stole from Republicans and made his own.

3) The federal Religious Freedom Act Bill Clinton signed into law was pointed to by Indiana Governor Mike Pence earlier this year to justify his version of the Indiana bill to over ride civil rights protections for the LGBT community in the name of “religious freedom.”

4) was the Defense of Marriage Act, and

5) was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Not a single progressive idea is present in any of the five major legislative Acts signed into law during the Clinton White House years.

Progressive policies rely on science and facts, not revisionist history and celebrity star gazing.  

James Wall, Madison

See also Sanders has also been an uneven ally on gay rights.

Sanders is headed into a critical stretch against Clinton

If October proved a pivotal month for Hillary Rodham Clinton, November may be a make-or-break stretch for Bernie Sanders in his quest to topple his well-known Democratic rival.

After filling arenas with fervent supporters over the summer, Sanders now faces a series of hurdles: He is trying to present sharp policy contrasts with Clinton without ceding the high road and going negative. He’s planning a big speech to explain what he means by democratic socialism, a label that makes some Democrats uncomfortable but captures his political philosophy. And he wants to prove to Democrats he could go the distance.

“The campaign right now is really at a crossroads,” Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal said. “People want to win, and I think the biggest problem for Sanders at this point is convincing the Democratic and progressive communities that it’s not just about raising the issues.”

The importance of the coming weeks has not been lost on the Vermont independent senator and his aides, who have switched to a more aggressive critique of Clinton’s record since her strong performance during the first debate. Sanders has coupled that with a series of daytime and late night TV interviews to show a softer side of his personality even as popular culture plays up his cantankerous edge — as when Larry David spoofed him on “Saturday Night Live.”

His team is coming out with its first television ads early next month, giving voters a fuller look at his biography.

Sanders is competitive with Clinton in the first contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, and his fundraising has been stronger than expected — more than $40 million raised, mostly online. He’s still drawing large crowds; a college forum at George Mason University in Virginia on Wednesday filled a small field house with 1,700 students, as people at 300 colleges watched online.

He’s trying to expand his coalition beyond white liberals, college students and working-class supporters. But he has a major deficit with black voters who are crucial in South Carolina, which follows New Hampshire on the calendar, and among Latinos who are influential in Nevada, the fourth contest, suggesting he’ll need the first two states to provide him with a sling-shot. Sanders has a past in the civil rights movement but a political career rooted in mostly white Vermont.

“We’ve got to begin to build bridges to people now, sooner rather than later,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ senior adviser. “But a lot of what we’re hoping to do will be premised on early success in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Clinton was helped by a fortuitous sequence of events in October after struggling for months to address her use of a private email system at the State Department. Then the former secretary of state performed well in the first Democratic debate, smiling when Sanders quipped that the nation wasn’t interested in her “damn emails.”

When Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not run, it eliminated a competitor. And she withstood a daylong grilling by a Republican-led congressional committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

In the debate, Clinton seized upon Sanders’ comments about people “shouting” about gun control, saying “sometimes when a woman talks, some people think it’s shouting.” Sanders’ team interpreted her comments as accusing him of being sexist and readied a series of policy contrasts with Clinton in response.

Before thousands of Iowa Democrats last weekend, Sanders questioned Clinton’s slow path to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and noted that Clinton did not join him in voting against the Iraq war.

Sanders said her recent retelling of the events that led her husband, President Bill Clinton, to sign the Defense of Marriage Act — she called it a “defensive action” — was misleading. And he has pushed back against the notion that Clinton would police Wall Street.

“Who is going to take on the corporate interests and Wall Street?” Sanders asked in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose. “That’s the issue. And if people think Hillary Clinton is that candidate, go for it.”

Sanders swears off running negative ads but he says voters should know where the candidates differ.

“We’ve always thought that voters would accept that kind of dialogue in a campaign,” Devine said. “If you’re asked about differences you have with your opponent, then you talk about them.”

But his willingness to implicitly contrast his record with Clinton’s risks crossing the line and turning into a character attack.

“Going after her is a twofold problem,” said Joe Trippi, who advised ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “It goes against your brand, and you’re attacking someone who is well-liked by her supporters.”

The senator expects to address his political philosophy before the next Democratic debate on Nov. 14.

But left unsaid: Is the country ready to elect a quasi-socialist president?

“Through no fault of his own, people don’t know what to make of it,” said Gina Glantz, manager of Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. “They probably hear the socialism and not the democratic.”

In defense of the Clintons’ LGBT record

The nation has come so far so fast on LGBT issues that it’s easy to forget — or never to have known — the sociopolitical realities that faced Bill Clinton when he introduced the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy and signed the Defense of Marriage Act.

It was Clinton’s zeal to fulfill his campaign promise to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military that led to the enactment of “don’t ask.” New to Washington and naïve to its vicious ways, Clinton announced soon after taking office that he intended to keep his promise to end the ban preventing gays and lesbians from serving in the military. He was unprepared for the near-hysterical backlash from Republicans as well as the majority of American citizens.

Looking back, it’s obvious that he should have taken a more measured, pragmatic approach, as President Barack Obama did on marriage equality. Clinton and the LGBT community acted before they’d sufficiently made their case on the issue.

In response to the backlash, Clinton proposed the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue,” which was seen as a compromise. It meant gays and lesbians could serve, but only secretly. In retrospect, the compromise seems shockingly offensive: It forced gays and lesbians to live in the closet, in the shadows — in paranoia and shame.

Still, it might actually have been better than the previous policy if not for the anger it triggered among Armed Forces leaders, who were offended that a young liberal and former anti-war activist dared tell them how to run the world’s largest military. So they ignored the “don’t pursue” portion of the policy and, in an act of revenge, embarked on a witch-hunt that led to record numbers of discharges. The witch-hunts wrecked tens of thousands of gay and lesbian patriots’ lives and undermined the nation’s military capacity.

Clinton’s role, however, was motivated by miscalculation and inexperience, not anti-gay sentiment.

The same is true of the Defense of Marriage Act. We remember it now as a gross perversion of our constitutional rights, which indeed it was. But support for same-sex marriage was only 27 percent in 1996. Republicans were determined to enact a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, which would have taken decades to undo. Clinton signed DOMA with the hope of appeasing anti-gay activists and avoiding Republican threats of a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. And he succeeded.

In signing the anti-gay law, Clinton made it easier for gays and lesbians to gain the right to marriage later through a Supreme Court decision. Otherwise, equality leaders would have  had to go through the process of enacting a constitutional amendment repealing an anti-gay amendment — a process that, like the Equal Rights Amendment, would probably never have succeeded.

With this history in mind, it seems unfair to mock Hillary Clinton’s claim that the Defense of Marriage Act was a defensive political maneuver, because that’s exactly what it was. Both Clintons have devoted large swathes of their careers to expanding civil rights. There is no calculated flip-flopping concerning Hillary Clinton’s evolving position on this issue, any more than Obama’s change of heart was a flip-flop. Both Clinton and Obama have consistently been on the side of social justice. It’s in their DNA.

When progressives resort to demagoguery on issues like marriage equality, they are mirroring the destructive, unyielding approach of the right. They’re suggesting that compromise is no way to win, that pragmatism is betrayal.

In so doing, they’re aiding and abetting the real enemy, the opponents of equality and social justice. The Republican right would love to watch us bicker internally with our self-defeating purists and wind up as frayed and recklessly self-destructive as their side of the aisle.

Progressives need to decide if they want to win the war or continually re-enact the battle on this and other key issues. 

Respect for Marriage bill reintroduced in Congress

The sunny day Floridians Joe Williams and Peter Rostenkowski skipped down the steps of their county courthouse with a marriage license in hand, a Florida congresswoman reintroduced legislation aimed at guaranteeing them access to full marriage benefits.

Same-sex couples began marrying in much of the Sunshine State at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 6.

Also that day, a Republican from Miami-Dade, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, joined U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., in reintroducing the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation aimed at fully repealing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

The Supreme Court partially overturned DOMA in 2013, but still in place is Section 2, which allows states to refuse to recognize valid legal marriages of same-sex couples. Also, there is no uniform standard on marriage for federal purposes.

“We must finish the job begun by the Supreme Court by passing the Respect for Marriage Act,” Nadler said. “The Supreme Court has ruled that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, but Congress still must repeal the law in its entirety.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a companion bill, which would provide a uniform rule for recognizing couples under federal law, ensuring benefits and rights of marriage regardless of where lawfully married couples reside

In June 2014, a year after the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, the U.S. Justice Department issued a finding that without legislation repealing DOMA, married same-sex couples still may be denied critical federal benefits, specifically Social Security and veterans benefits that are issued based on the law of the state in which a married couple resides or resided. Currently under the law, if a same-sex couple married in Wisconsin then moved to Texas, where a marriage ban remains, and one spouse died, the widow or widower likely would be denied Social Security spousal survivor benefits.

“The Respect for Marriage Act would ensure equal treatment under federal law and finally put to rest the awful consequences of DOMA,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a co-sponsor of RMA.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin also is a co-sponsor.

Back in Florida, Williams and Rostenkowski, who’ve been together 33 years,  wanted to get their license the first day possible. But they don’t plan to marry until Valentine’s Day.

“We’ve waited decades for this,” Williams said. “We can wait long enough to plan a marvelous wedding.”

Florida, whose 19.9 million people make it the nation’s third-largest state, became the 36th where same-sex couples could marry. It likely will become a mecca for gay couples seeking destination weddings.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, however, continues to defend the marriage ban and wants final rulings on the issue from state and federal courts.

Her position led clerks in some conservative counties to shut down marriage ceremonies at the courthouses on Jan. 6.

Elsewhere, mass weddings took place at courthouses and city halls, including in Broward and Palm Beach counties and Orlando. 

In Miami-Dade County, more than 100 same-sex couples received marriage licenses on Jan. 6 and more than 20 married at the courthouse.

Utah appeals gay marriage case to U.S. Supreme Court

The state of Utah filed its appeal of a gay marriage ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, becoming the first state to ask the justices to review a state same-sex marriage ban since the high court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year.

Utah officials announced last month they would take the state’s case directly to the high court rather than seek a review from the appeals court that in June ruled states cannot deprive gay and lesbian couples of the fundamental right to marry. That decision upheld a December ruling by a federal judge overturning Utah’s ban.

The unanswered and “immensely important” question before the Supreme Court is whether the 14th Amendment prohibits state same-sex marriage bans, the state wrote in its filing.

“The issue presented has been ‘percolating’ for 40 years. Dozens of cases are challenging state marriage laws, and erratic use of stays has created legal chaos,” the state wrote. “It comes down to this: Thousands of couples are unconstitutionally being denied the right to marry, or millions of voters are being disenfranchised of their vote to define marriage. Either way, the court’s review is necessary, and this case is the right vehicle to do so.”

Peggy Tomsic, lead attorney for the three gay and lesbian couples who sued Utah, said in a statement that they “vehemently disagree with the notion that states can deny one of the most foundational rights to the millions of same-sex couples living across this great land.”

Utah attorney general Sean Reyes said in a statement that he has a responsibility to defend the state constitution and hopes the case is resolved quickly.

If the U.S. Supreme court decides to take the case, it would be the first time the top court considers gay marriage since justices struck down part of a law that that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. Since then, courts around the country have ruled in favor of gay marriage in more than 20 cases.

The high court is under no obligation to take Utah’s case, and it could wait for more rulings from other appellate courts with gay marriage cases pending, legal scholars say.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Virginia’s state’s voter-approved prohibition on gay marriage is unconstitutional. A county clerk has asked to delay the ruling while it’s appealed to the Supreme Court.

Arguments are scheduled for August and September in three different appellate courts for cases out of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Nevada, Idaho, Wisconsin and Indiana.

In any of the appellate cases, the losing party can appeal directly to the Supreme Court, or first ask for the entire appellate court to review the ruling.

Legal experts say the Supreme Court eventually will take a gay marriage case after one or more appeals court rulings, but that won’t happen until 2015 at the earliest.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg says Supreme Court won’t ‘duck’ same-sex marriage

The Supreme Court won’t duck the issue of same-sex marriage the next time a case comes to the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says.

The 81-year-old Ginsburg said in an interview with The Associated Press that she expects a same-sex marriage case to be heard and decided by June 2016, and possibly a year earlier.

Attitudes have changed swiftly in favor of same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, Ginsburg said in her wood-paneled office on the court’s main floor.

She predicted that the justices would not delay ruling as they did on interracial marriage bans, which were not formally struck down until 1967.

“I think the court will not do what they did in the old days when they continually ducked the issue of miscegenation,” Ginsburg said. “If a case is properly before the court, they will take it.”

The comment marked something of a change for Ginsburg, who previously had been seen as wary about the court getting too far ahead of the country in ruling on major social issues.

The justices decided two same-sex marriage cases in June 2013. Ginsburg was in the majority to strike down part of the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act. She also was part of a court majority that declined to rule on the merits of California’s Proposition 8 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The effect of the decision was to allow same-sex unions to resume in California, but the high court said nothing about the right to marry.

Appeals courts in Denver and Richmond, Virginia, have upheld lower court rulings striking down state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Any of those cases could make their way to the Supreme Court in the coming months.

Ginsburg also addressed two cases decided by the court in June that affect the rights of women. In one, she defended the court’s ruling that struck down the 35-foot, protest-free zone on sidewalks outside Massachusetts abortions clinics.

“It was not a compromise decision but a good decision to say yes, you can regulate, but it is speech so you have to be careful not to go too far,” Ginsburg said. While all the justices said the 35-foot buffer zone violated the Constitution, Ginsburg joined Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s other liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrower grounds than the other, more conservative justices wanted.

In the other case, Ginsburg and her liberal colleagues dissented from a decision that allows for-profit corporations, such as the Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores, to assert religious objections to paying for contraceptives for women, as required under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Joining Ginsburg in dissent were the other two women on the court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and Justice Stephen Breyer.

“I have no doubt that if the court had been composed of nine women the result would have been different in Hobby Lobby,” Ginsburg said.

She said, though, that she hasn’t lost hope for the five men on the court who formed the majority in favor of Hobby Lobby. “As long as one lives, one can learn,” she said.

Ginsburg has served on the court since 1993. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. She said feels she can still do the job well and rebuffed suggestions that she should retire now so President Barack Obama can appoint a like-minded successor.

“Right now, I don’t see any sign that I’m less able to do the job,” she said.

She directed a feisty response to law professors Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine, who have called on her to step down now.

“So who do you think could be nominated now that would get through the Senate that you would rather see on the court than me?” she said.

Hagel blasts states defying military’s same-sex spousal benefits

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sharply criticized U.S. states that are defying the Pentagon by refusing to allow National Guard facilities to issue ID cards that enable same-sex spouses of military members to claim benefits.

“This is wrong,” Hagel said in remarks prepared for delivery in New York on Oct. 31.

“Not only does this violate the states’ obligation under federal law, their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they’re entitled to,” he said.

Hagel said this is causing division among the military ranks.

The Pentagon says there are 114 Army and Air National Guard sites in those nine states that are not providing ID cards to eligible same-sex spouses.

Hagel also used his speech at the Anti-Defamation League dinner in Washington, D.C., to announce that he has directed the Marine Corps to expedite the manufacture and delivery to Israel of V-22 Osprey aircraft, hybrids that take off and land like a helicopter and cruise like an airplane. It is to be the first overseas sale of the Osprey.

Hagel also offered assurances that the Obama administration’s interest in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program is a way of testing Iranian intentions for a diplomatic solution to a matter that has been in dispute for years.

“If we can find ways to resolve disputes peacefully, we are wise to explore them,” he said in his prepared remarks. Israel is skeptical of any negotiation with Iran.

Convinced Iran is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons to threaten his country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Iranians are trying to trick the West into easing economic sanctions while still pushing forward with their nuclear program. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes.

Hagel focused much of his dinner speech on the gay rights matter, which was a central issue during the tenure of his predecessor at the Pentagon, Leon Panetta. Panetta, who retired in February, was honored at the dinner for his long career in public service.

Under Pentagon policy that took effect Sept. 3, same-sex spouses of military members are eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses. That decision followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Some states, however, have refused to allow issuance of the necessary Pentagon ID cards on National Guard facilities.

In Oklahoma, for example, Gov. Mary Fallin ordered her state’s National Guard to stop processing requests, making legally married gay couples apply for benefits on federal facilities like Tinker Air Force Base. Oklahoma in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting giving benefits of marriage to gay couples.

Hagel said these states’ policies are unfair. He said he ordered the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, to “take immediate action to remedy this situation.”

It was not immediately clear what legal authority Grass has to force the states to change course.

Hagel said he instructed Grass to meet with the adjutants general from the nine states where the ID cards are being denied at state facilities. He said those adjutants general, who work for their states’ governor, “will be expected to comply” with Pentagon policy on this issue.

The American Military Partner Association, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian military members, praised Hagel’s remarks.

“Secretary Hagel has made it clear the National Guard in these few rogue states are failing to live up to their obligations to military families under federal law,” said Stephen Peters, the association’s president. “We applaud him in showing strong leadership by ordering the National Guard in these states to comply and follow lawful direction and DoD policy.”

Defense officials estimate there are 18,000 same-sex couples in the active-duty military, National Guard and Reserves and among military retirees. It’s unclear how many of those are married. The Pentagon policy on equal access to benefits does not apply to unmarried gay partners of military members.

A Pentagon ban on gays serving openly in the military was dropped in September 2011.

Texas lawmakers ask Texas National Guard to treat service members equally

Texas lawmakers are calling on the Texas guard to halt discrimination against married gay and lesbian service members, who under a Pentagon order are guaranteed equal treatment.

The 16 lawmakers signed a letter to Major Gen. John F. Nichols of the National Guard in Texas. Earlier this month, Nichols said that the Texas Guard would not be recognizing the marriages of gays and lesbians in the service even though the U.S. Defense Department has new rules in place requiring such recognition. The DOD implemented new policies after the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to deny federal recognition to gays and lesbians who legally married in a U.S. state.

Nichols said recognizing same-sex marriage was in conflict with Texas’ constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Wisconsin has a similar amendment, but its guard is processing benefits applications by married gay members. So are other states with anti-gay marriage laws or amendments in place, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.

The Texas lawmakers wrote, “We call on you to respect Texas’ military families, to reconsider your position, and to follow the lead of virtually every other adjutant general for the National Guard of the United States by, without further delay, enrolling all eligible spouses of National Guard service members at facilities operated by Texas Military Forces. It is our understanding that you have sought legal guidance on this matter from the Texas Attorney General. Since it could take several months to receive a response, we ask that you conduct enrollment of eligible spouses during this review process.”

They also asked Nichols to provide any communication he might have had with Gov. Rick Perry on the matter.

Judge rules that VA can’t deny disability benefits to lesbian vet

A judge in Los Angeles ruled on Aug. 29 that a lesbian Army veteran and her spouse should be entitled to disability benefits given the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said that a federal code defining a spouse as a person of the opposite sex is unconstitutional “under rational basis scrutiny” since the high court’s decision allowing legally married gay couples the right to health care benefits.

“The court finds that the exclusion of spouses in same-sex marriages from veterans’ benefits is not rationally related to the goal of gender equality,” in the code, Marshall wrote in her four-page ruling.

The Department of Veterans Affairs denied an application from veteran Tracey Cooper-Harris and her spouse seeking additional money and benefits that married veterans are entitled to receive. Cooper-Harris suffers from multiple sclerosis and receives disability benefits.

She and Maggie Cooper-Harris got married in California during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex unions were legal in the state. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had said previously the couple would receive about $150 more a month in disability payments, and Maggie Cooper-Harris would be eligible for about $1,200 a month in survivor’s benefits if her wife died.

The Justice Department had asked for Cooper-Harris’ case to be tossed out on the grounds that veterans’ claims can only be heard by an administrative Board of Veterans’ Appeals. But Marshall said the case could move forward.

The law on VA benefits specifically defines spouse and surviving spouse as someone of the opposite sex, which has prevented same-sex married couples from accessing such benefits as enhanced disability or pension payments.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. earlier this month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said no court had deemed the provision unconstitutional, nor has Congress taken up a bill to change the definition of spouse. He noted, however, that if spousal definitions were determined to be unconstitutional, the agency would be prepared to update its policies.

The Defense Department has said that same-sex spouses of military members will be eligible for the same health care, housing and other benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses starting Sept. 3.