Tag Archives: domestic partners

ACLU of Wisconsin sues for marriage equality in the state

The American Civil Liberties Union delivered an early Valentine to gay and lesbian couples in Wisconsin. The ACLU, representing four same-sex couples, filed a federal lawsuit in Madison on Feb. 3 that demands marriage equality in the state.

The couples and ACLU of Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis announced the move at the Madison Concourse Hotel in a mid-day news conference.

“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” said Dupuis. “They have built their lives and raised children here.”

The couples are:

• Judi Trampf and Katy Heyning of Madison.

• Roy Badger and Garth Wangemann of Milwaukee.

• Charvonne Kemp and Marie Carlson of Milwaukee.

• Carol Schumacher and Virginia Wolf of Eau Claire.

Three of the couples want to get married in Wisconsin and a fourth couple wants the state to recognize their marriage from Minnesota.

Schumacher and Wolf have been together 38 years, since their very first date in 1975. They were the first couple to join the Eau Claire domestic partner registry in 2009, and they got married on their anniversary in December by a judge in Minnesota.

As Wolf put it, “We’ve been inching towards matrimony for 38 years.”

Schumacher said: “The main reason I want to marry Virginia is that it would be an affirmation of our relationship and our family.”

In Wisconsin, same-sex couples can enter into registered domestic partnerships, which provide limited protections. But same-sex couples cannot marry — voters approved a constitutional amendment barring marriage between two people of the same sex and the recognition of any legal status substantially similar to marriage for same-sex couples. State law also refers to marriage as the union of a “husband and wife.”

The equality lawsuit names Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as a defendant, along with state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Revenue Secretary Richard G. Chandler, State Registrar Oskar Anderson, Eau Claire County District Attorney Gary King, Milwaukee County Clerk Joseph Czarnezki and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, the national ACLU and the law firm of Mayer Brown filed the suit, which is Wolf v. Walker, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

The attorneys want the court to declare the state’s amendment and laws barring gays and lesbians from marrying in violation of  the  Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

In the preliminary statement, the equality brief states, “Marriage is universally recognized and celebrated as the hallmark of a couple’s love for and commitment to each other. When two people marry, they commit personally and publicly to  build  a  life  together, and they  ask  their  families,  friends, communities, and government to respect, honor, and support that commitment. Marriage has long been recognized and valued for its beneficial contribution to the welfare of society and to individual happiness. Lesbians and gay men in Wisconsin are denied the freedom afforded to different-sex couples in this State to have their loving, committed relationships recognized through marriage.”

The filing came about a month after federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah overturned state constitutional amendments barring recognition of same-sex marriages and the day before a federal court hearing in a challenge to Virginia’s anti-gay amendment.

The filing also came eight months after the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Windsor, overturned the federal provision barring the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex marriages. In another ruling, the high court cleared the way for the overturning of an anti-gay marriage amendment in California.

Since the rulings, federal agencies have released rules for gay couples to access the more than 1,100 federal benefits and rights associated with marriage. Meanwhile, the number of lawsuits seeking marriage equality has ballooned to more than 40 and the number of states where gays can marry has grown to 17 plus the District of Columbia.

The Wisconsin brief notes the advances elsewhere in the country: “Yet Wisconsin, a historic leader in marriage equality, maintains one of the most restrictive bans on marriage for same-sex couples in the nation. Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment barring same-sex  couples from marrying not  only denies loving,  committed,  same-sex couples the dignity and status that only marriage can confer on their relationships and their families, it also prohibits the extension to same-sex couples of the same legal protections, duties, and benefits that married couples are allowed by law. The State deprives same-sex couples of these rights and freedoms for no other reason than their sexual orientation and their sex.”

John Knight, a staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, said, “More and more Americans over the past few years accept the idea that same-sex couples and their families shouldn’t be treated differently than other families. It is our hope that Wisconsin will soon join the other 17 states in granting the freedom to marry.”

For gay and lesbian residents of Wisconsin to marry, they must leave the state. Yet Wisconsin law even makes that a crime, punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

“It is wrong for the state to treat these loving and committed couples as second-class citizens, and it is cruel to place them in a catch-22 where they can’t even travel elsewhere to obtain federal protections without their marriage being labeled a crime,” said Dupuis.

Fair Wisconsin, the statewide civil rights group involved in defending a right-wing challenge to the state domestic partnership law, pledged its support to the cause in a statement from Katie Belanger, the group’s president and CEO. She said, “We certainly support the relief requested in the ACLU’s case, as well as all efforts to make marriage equality a reality.  We look forward to monitoring the Wisconsin case and the more than 40 cases across the country as they continue to move forward.”

Van Hollen, in his official capacity as attorney general, pledged to defend the amendment in court. “This constitutional amendment was approved by a large majority of Wisconsin residents. I believe the amendment is constitutional, and I will vigorously defend it,” a statement from the attorney general’s office said.

Meanwhile, Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards, who is running for attorney general, issued a statement backing marriage equality: “Like so many loving families across the state, my wife Andrea and I are pleased that the federal court here, as it has in so many other states, will have a chance to rule that the U.S. Constitution ensures that every loving couple should be treated equally.

He continued, “As attorney general, it will be my obligation to the citizens of Wisconsin to defend their constitutional rights; rights that I believe are currently being violated for same-sex couples. I support marriage equality, and under my leadership, the Department of Justice will be an ally of those seeking equality for all individuals in Wisconsin.”

In January, Virginia’s new attorney general, a Democrat, reversed his Republican predecessor’s position on equality and sided with plaintiffs in a major push to overturn that state’s anti-gay marriage amendment.

ExxonMobil to offer spousal benefits to married gay employees

ExxonMobil, which for years has resisted appeals for change from shareholders and civil rights advocates, will recognize same-sex marriages and will offer health benefits to the spouses of gay employees.

However, the company has not amended its non-discrimination policy to ban bias based on gender identity or sexual orientation. And apparently it will not reinstate the domestic partnership program that Mobil offered before the merger.

In a statement, ExxonMobil said, “The decision is consistent with the direction of most U.S. government agencies. We have made no change in the definition of eligibility for our U.S. benefit plans. Spousal eligibility in our U.S. benefit plans has been and continues to be governed by the federal definition of marriage and spouse.”

“Granting health benefits to all married couples is a step toward equality, but it is certainly not the kind of leadership exhibited by ExxonMobil’s competitors,” said Deena Fidas, director the workplace equality program for the Human Rights Campaign. “There is no federal law protecting employees from discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity and ExxonMobil refuses to join the majority of their Fortune 500 colleagues in adopting their own such policies.”

Before the merger in 1999 between Mobil Corp and Exxon Corp., Mobil offered health benefits to domestic partners of its employees and prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.

When Exxon acquired Mobil, the non-discrimination policy was eliminated and the domestic partner benefits program was closed to new employees.

In HRC’s rating system for corporations, Chevron, BP, Shell and Spectra received scores of 85 or higher out of a possible 100. ExxonMobil received a minus 25 score. 

A growing number of companies are updating benefits policies to come into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a provision in a 1996 law that barred the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages.

California clears same-sex weddings for prison inmates – but not to other prisoners

California prison officials have confirmed that inmates can get married to someone of the same sex under certain conditions.

Michael Stainer, director of the adult institutions division for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, issued a memo on Friday stating that the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriages legal again in the state in June also applies to prisoners.

But Stainer says gay or bisexual inmates will only be allowed to marry same-sex partners who are not incarcerated and only during prison ceremonies.

He says marriages between two prisoners would raise security concerns.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said that Steiner’s directive was prompted by an inquiry from his office.

In 2007, California became the first state to allow conjugal visits and overnight stays for inmates with same-sex domestic partners.

Walmart extends domestic-partner benefits to gay workers

The nation’s largest employer is extending its health care benefits to its workers’ domestic partners – including those of the same sex.

Walmart, which has long been a target of attacks by labor groups for its low skimpy wages and benefits, as well as other shoddy business practices, says the changes were made so it could have one uniform policy for all 50 states at a time when some states have their own definitions of what constitutes domestic partnerships and civil unions. Almost two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies already offer domestic partner benefits.

Walmart defines domestic partners as spouses of the same or opposite gender, and unmarried partners who are not legally separated who have lived together for at least 12 months, are not married to anyone else, are in an exclusive relationship, and plan to continue sharing a household indefinitely, a spokesman says.

The move follows June’s Supreme decision overturning the 1996 federal law DOMA, which denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The gay blog Towleroad broke the news about Walmart yesterday after obtaining a leaked internal memo that Walmart’s senior vice president of benefits Sally Welborn sent to retail management. The memo read:

“It’s a business decision, not a moral or political decision. We operate in 50 states, hundreds of municipalities and Puerto Rico, and as clarified under the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), each of these states are developing different definitions of marriage, domestic partner, civil union, etc. By developing a single definition for all Walmart associates in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, we are able to ensure consistency for associates across our markets.

“The Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as “ObamaCare”) inextricably linked health insurance with employment. As such, for our associates for whom we offer health insurance, we want to be sure we are providing access to as many individuals and their families as possible.

“Given the diverse world we live in today, a comprehensive benefit package that includes domestic partner benefits appeals to the contemporary workforce. Many companies, including most of our competitors, already offer spouse/partner benefits to their employees. Of 30 retail competitors, all but two (Publix and Stop and Shop union plan) provide either same- or opposite-sex domestic partner coverage.

“Your behavior matters. The words you use also matter. We are counting on you to be thoughtful, supportive and understanding of multiple viewpoints. Your visibility can make a big difference to how associates feel.”

Bill would extend Social Security benefits to couples in civil unions, domestic partnerships

California Congresswoman Linda Sánchez has introduced the Social Security Equality Act of 2013 to “put an end to a Social Security Administration policy that denies benefits to same-sex couples.”

The Democratic representative said, “It is time for our government to stop telling gay and lesbian couples that they are second class citizens. Same-sex couples pay into Social Security over the course of their working lives just like other Americans. They should receive the full benefits they have earned. My bill will make sure every American receives a benefit based upon their contribution to Social Security, not their sexual orientation.”

The Social Security Equality Act of 2013 would require the Social Security Administration to provide spousal, survivor and death benefits to same-sex couples in relationships that have been recognized by the state where they live.

“Despite the recent Supreme Court decisions that struck down DOMA and reaffirmed marriage equality in California, millions of LGBT Americans still live in states where they do not have equal access to federal benefits,” said Lorri L. Jean, the CEO of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “The Social Security Equality Act will help many older LGBT Americans live their lives with the dignity and respect that all older citizens of our country deserve.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. It is believed that this ruling would require the Social Security Administration to provide full benefits to married, same-sex couples.

However, Sánchez’ bill would also guarantee equal benefits for a same-sex couple bound by a civil union or domestic partnership but not technically “married.” She said H.R. 3050 would provide couples in those states with equal access to the benefits they deserve.

H.R. 3050 was introduced with 109 original co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee on which Congresswoman Sánchez serves. 

Texas judge says lesbian couple can’t live together

A judge has ruled that a North Texas lesbian couple can’t live together because of a morality clause in one of the women’s divorce papers.

The clause is common in divorce cases in Texas and other states. It prevents a divorced parent from having a romantic partner spend the night while children are in the home. If the couple marries, they can get out from under the legal provision – but that is not an option for gay couples in Texas, where such marriages aren’t recognized.

The Dallas Morning News reported that in a divorce hearing last month for Carolyn and Joshua Compton, Collin County District Judge John Roach Jr. enforced the terms detailed in their 2011 divorce papers. He ordered Carolyn Compton’s partner, Page Price, to move out of the home they shared with the Comptons’ two daughters, ages 10 and 13. The judge gave Price 30 days to find another place to live.

Paul Key said his client, Joshua Compton, wanted the clause enforced for his kids’ benefit.

“The fact that they can’t get married in Texas is a legislative issue,” Key said. “It’s not really our issue.”

The Comptons had been married for 11 years before their split. Carolyn Compton originally filed for divorce in September 2010.

Roach said the clause doesn’t target same-sex couples, adding that the language is gender neutral.

“It’s a general provision for the benefit of the children,” the judge said.

Price and Carolyn Compton said in a statement that they believe the clause is unconstitutional. But they also said they would comply with the order “even though it will be disruptive to their family and has the potential of being harmful to the children.”

They also said in the statement that the clause “is a burden on parents, regardless of their sexual orientation, that takes away and unreasonably limits their ability to make parental decisions of whom their children may be around and unreasonably limits what the United State Supreme Court has identified as the liberty of thought, belief and expression.”

They are considering whether to file an appeal.

In Collin County, the clause is part of the standing orders that apply to every divorce case filed and remains in force while the divorce is pending. In the case of the Comptons’ divorce, the clause was also added to their final divorce decree. It has no expiration date.

Same-sex military couples struggle for recognition

Sgt. Karen Alexander fought for her country in Iraq, but back home she often feels the U.S. Army is fighting against her.

Married to another female soldier with a 4-year-old son, Alexander is denied the same housing allowance and other family-friendly benefits she would be entitled to if married to a man. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, she’s still single.

“I’m married to my best friend, who just happens to be of the same sex as me,” said Alexander, 29, who is stationed at Fort Bragg. “We fight for everyone else’s rights, but we’re treated as second-class citizens.”

Nearly a year and half after President Barack Obama and Congress ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” same-sex couples are faced with daily reminders of the conflict inherent in serving openly as gays and lesbians under a government that still refuses to acknowledge their relationships.

Pentagon officials say they are bound by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA in June, but advocacy groups say there are numerous steps the Pentagon could take now to treat struggling same-sex military couples more fairly.

Among the steps proposed by such advocacy groups as OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the American Military Partner Association are issuing military IDs to same-sex spouses, ensuring spouses have full access to on-base social programs, and letting same-sex couples qualify for military housing.

“Clearly DOMA prevents commanders from truly treating their service members equally, but there is so much they could do to treat them with greater equity,” said Allyson Robinson, Outserve-SLDN’s executive director. “The fact they choose not to is shocking.”

The Defense Department’s public response to these proposals hasn’t changed over the past year.

“The Department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen wrote in an e-mail this week. “The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective.”

Almost verbatim, that’s the same message conveyed to gay-rights activists in March 2012 by acting Undersecretary of Defense Jo Ann Rooney.

Robinson said it was possible that military leaders were waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA. If the law is struck down, which is by no means certain, the military would have a clear path to treat married sex-sex couples equally.

“If they’re waiting, that in itself is a troubling decision,” Robinson said. “For some of these service members, waiting even a few months is an incredible difficulty.”

The next step for the activist groups will be putting pressure on Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next defense secretary, in hopes that he will take up the cause if he is confirmed.

Hagel, a former Republican senator, has apologized for 1998 remarks referring to an ambassadorial nominee as “openly, aggressively gay” and he pledged this week in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to “do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

While the Pentagon brass ponders the issue, Alexander and her wife, Pvt. Allison Hanson, struggle to pay their bills.

The couple met in an Army training program for chemical, biological and nuclear warfare in 2010. They got married last year in Washington, D.C., one of an increasing number places where same-sex marriage is legal.

Despite assurances to the contrary before she transferred, it was only after Alexander reported for duty at Fort Bragg in September the couple learned that post officials would not approve money for off-base housing, even the lesser amount provided to single soldiers with no dependents. Hanson said exceptions are routinely granted to unmarried heterosexual soldiers for various domestic reasons, and that she believes commanders at Bragg have the discretion to do so in Alexander’s case if they wanted to.

“I can’t live in the barracks with her,” said Hanson, a National Guard soldier who lost her job when she followed Alexander to North Carolina.

The couple got a tiny one-bedroom apartment in nearby Fayetteville, where inexpensive housing can be tough to come by. After rent, the payment for their shared car, insurance, utilities and other bills, Alexander’s modest enlisted salary provides them less than a $100 a week.

“I don’t know if people have this Will and Grace image of how homosexuals live, like we’re all rich or something, but that’s not the case at all,” Alexander said. “We’re lucky we’re vegetarians, so we don’t really spend that much money on food.”

Hanson made the agonizing decision to send her son to live with her ex-husband and his new wife in Utah because they cannot afford to care for him.

Beyond pocketbook issues, same-sex couples based at Bragg say they face social stigma.

After returning from a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Nakisha Hardy and her civilian wife were invited to attend a retreat at the Pinehurst resort intended to help strengthen relationships that can be strained by long separations. Though Hardy was told in advance that a same-sex couple would be welcome, on the second day they were asked to leave by an Army chaplain.

“He said that the program is funded under DOMA and that we were making other families feel uncomfortable and creating a distraction,” Hardy said. “It definitely makes you question whether the culture is changing. People’s personal beliefs aren’t going to change just because laws do.”

Last month, Bragg received national attention when Ashley Broadway, who is married to Lt. Col. Heather Mack, was denied membership in the officers’ spouses club because she does not have a spouse identification badge issued by the military.

Though she and Mack have been together for 15 years, the only pass base officials will provide to Broadway names her as a caregiver to their 2-year-old son _ the same credential given to nannies.

On Thursday, the club announced they would allow Broadway admittance as a “guest member.” She said Friday anything less than full membership is not acceptable.

“It’s another slap in the face to my life and that of thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers because it basically it’s like, ‘Yes, please wear the uniform, please sacrifice, put yourself in harm’s way, but, by the way, we’re not going to take care of your family or your spouse back home,”” Broadway said.

Alexander and Hanson said change isn’t coming fast enough. Although she says she loves military life and always thought she’d serve until retirement, Alexander is now considering leaving the Army she has served for nearly 10 years.

“The Pentagon has the option to change things, right now,” Hanson said. “My wife and I both raised our right hands and swore to defend the Constitution. At what point does someone protect our rights?”

Customs revising regs to broaden family definition

U.S. Customs and Border Protection on March 27 will publish proposed new regulations on when members of a family residing in one household and traveling together on their return to the United States may make a joint declaration for all members of the family.

The government wants to expand the definition of the term “members of a family residing in one household” to include domestic relationships, which would allow more U.S. returning residents to file a joint customs declaration for articles acquired abroad.

“Domestic relationship” would be defined to include foster children, stepchildren, half-siblings, legal wards, other dependents and individuals with an in loco parentis or guardianship relationship.

CBP also would include within the definition two adults who are in a committed relationship long-term companions and couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships where the partners share financial assets and obligations and are not married to, or a partner of, anyone else.

“Members of a family residing in one household” would continue to encompass relationships of blood, adoption and marriage under the rule change.

By expanding the definition of “members of a family residing in one household,” CBP anticipates a reduction in the number of declarations, which would streamline passenger processing by officers and reduce costs.

CBP believes that this proposed change would more accurately reflect relationships between members of the public who are traveling together as a family.

The proposed change was recommended by the Family Equality Council.

FEC executive director Jennifer Chrisler said, “No child should have to ask their parent if they really are a family because of an arcane customs form. But that is what is happening to LGBT families who are treated differently when re-entering the United States through Customs and Border Protection after travelling abroad. In many cases couples are forced to declare they have no relationship with their spouses and parents are forced to split up their children in order to get through the customs process.”

She added, “President Obama and this administration have recognized the need to modernize forms and regulations to reflect the reality of today’s American families and we applaud them for that. We look forward to the day when LGBT families are recognized, respected and protected by all laws and policies.”

The government is accepting comments on the proposed change through May 26 at www.regulations.gov or by mail at Trade and Commercial Regulations Branch, Regulations and Rulings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 799 Ninth St., N.W. (Mint Annex), Washington, D.C. 20229-1179.

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Federal site assists same-sex couples find insurance coverage

The federal HealthCare.gov site has been updated to help same-sex couples find insurance plans that offer domestic partner coverage, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced this week. 

The Health Plan Finder tool on HealthCare.gov allows consumers to compare the cost sharing and benefit choices of health plans and choose the best option to meet their needs. As a part of the plan finder update, same-sex couples, can now filter plans that offer coverage for all members of their family.

“Last year, as part of our commitment to work with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and be more responsive to the needs of these populations, we promised to improve the Health Plan Finder tool to give these individuals the ability to search for health plans that provide same-sex partner benefits,” Sebelius said in a statement. “Today we have delivered on that promise.”

Consumers looking for information on same-sex partner coverage can also access HealthCare.gov’s regular features, such as sorting based on enrollment, out-of-pocket expenses or other key categories. The same-sex partner filter also is available for small businesses looking for coverage for their employees.

Studies have shown that a portion of the LGBT community is disproportionately uninsured, including those without access to coverage through a spouse, domestic partner or employer.

“In the past, many same-sex couples have faced challenges searching for health coverage that suited their needs,” said Steve Larsen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. “This tool will eliminate the guesswork, providing an enhanced resource for exploring insurance coverage.”

HealthCare.gov was created under the Affordable Care Act and is the first site of its kind to bring information and links to health insurance plans to one place, and to make it easy for consumers to learn about and compare their insurance options.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services worked to define and collect detailed benefits and premium rating information from insurers across the country to develop the site.

Accounting firm to reimburse LGBT employees for added taxes

Ernst & Young announced Jan. 9 that it would reimburse LGBT employees for added federal and state taxes they pay on medical benefits for domestic partners.

The company is the first of the nation’s Big Four accounting firms to offer the perk – effective Jan. 1.

“Ernst & Young strives to promote an equitable work culture in every way possible,” said Karyn Twaronite of E&Y. “Our decision to provide this tax gross-up reinforces our long-standing pledge to foster a work environment that is inclusive for all of our people and signals our ongoing efforts to remain a leader in providing equitable benefits.”

Ernst & Young began offering employees in the U.S. same-sex domestic partner benefits in 2002.Under federal law and many states’ laws, same-sex partnerships are not recognized, causing people enrolled in domestic partner benefits to incur extra taxes.