Yesterday in Boston, 15 Massachusetts residents represented by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed suit against the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies, challenging the constitutionality of the federal government’s decision not to recognize their marriages.
In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. The act has two substantive sections: Section 2 reinforces a state’s right not to recognize another state’s same-sex marriage, while Section 3 denies federal recognition of marriages between couples of the same sex. The law marked the first time the federal government overruled state determinations of marriage.
When passed, the law did not tangibly affect anyone, because no state issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Today, however, there are more than 10,000 married same-sex couples in Massachusetts alone, with many more in Connecticut and New York — all of whose marriages are entirely valid and unquestioned under state law. Another 18,000 couples were married in California, and their marriages are currently under review by the California Supreme Court in the wake of Proposition 8.
A new study by the Center for American Progress finds that a same-sex couple with average characteristics will be denied more than $8,000 in Social Security spousal survivor benefits because the federal government doesn’t acknowledge their marriage. After paying a lifetime of payroll taxes into a system that is supposed to provide retirement benefits for married couples, same-sex couples who marry are denied thousands of dollars in Social Security retirement benefits, survivor benefits, and lump-sum death benefits, simply because they are married to a person of the same sex.
The Social Security benefits we analyzed are only one of hundreds of federal privileges and benefits extended to opposite-sex married couples but denied to legally married same-sex couples. A 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office found “1,138 federal statutory provisions classified to the United States Code in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights, and privileges.”
At a time when more and more families are struggling to pay their bills, this discrimination is depriving couples of vital benefits in retirement and financial protections in the wake of a tragic loss of a loved one. That’s not pro-family, that’s not good economics, and it’s just plain wrong.
Read the full study here.