Historic Court Decision Weds Marriage Equality To Economic Justice

Terrance Heath

Yesterday, the Supreme Court made history, by deciding not to make history. The Court rejected appeals in the marriage equality cases set to appear before it, and left intact appeals court rulings striking down same-sex marriage bans in Virginia, Utah, Wisconsin, and Indiana — effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in those states. The same goes for North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Kansas, and Colorado, which are under the jurisdiction of the same circuit courts.

Almost overnight

The Court’s decision means economic benefits for thousands of same-sex couples, and the states where they live.

Marriages began in Virginia within hours of the Court’s decision. In some cases, couples offered some very practical reasons for tying the knot.

  • Erika Turner and Jennifer Melsop of Centreville became the first same-sex couple married in Arlington County. Asked about the first thing they would do as a married couple, Turner responded, “She’s going to get my health insurance.”
  • In Lynchburg, home of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Ron (who declined to give his last name) and his partner of 15 years (who declined to be named at all) applied for a marriage license. Ron cited practical protections, like next of kin status, as reasons for marrying. “It makes life easier,” he said.

“It makes life easier,” is an understatement. “Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty for Being LGBT in America,”, a Movement Advance Project report released last week, showed how discriminatory laws harm LGBT Americans through financial penalties, economic insecurity, and increased poverty.

The report found that:

  • In states without marriage equality, LGBT families have $8,912 less in annual household income than married opposite-sex couples raising children in those states.
  • In states with marriage equality, the income gap shrinks to $689.
  • Female same-sex couples in states without marriage and those without employment protections are more likely to live in poverty than married opposite-sex couples in those states.
  • African-Americans in same-sex couples are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as African-American opposite sex couples, and have higher rates of poverty than white same-sex couples.
  • Transgender people are almost four times as likely to earn less than $10,000 than the rest of the population, despite having much higher rates of college and graduate school education.

The report said that legal discrimination, lack of family recognition, and hostile educational environments cause these disparities.

Paul’s family’s savings were “decimated” by legal discrimination and lack of family recognition. In February 2012, a sporting goods company offered Paul a job in product development and sourcing. There was one catch. Paul, his husband Peter, and their teenage son James, would have to leave Massachusetts and move to a small town in Nebraska — a state that does not recognize same-sex marriages, and has no laws prohibiting anti-gay job discrimination.

When Paul “came out” during the interview process, the interviewer replied “we are a very affirming company.” That turned out not to be the case.

The company denied health insurance to Peter, despite initially promising to cover him. There were homophobic jokes in meetings, and threatening emails. The company responded to Paul’s complaints by firing him. Afterwards, company employees confirmed to Paul that he was let go for being gay. The company’s lawyer summed it up:

“‘What did you think was going to happen in this community?’” Paul recalls the lawyer saying. “‘We’re a Republican town, we’re a conservative town and we’re a Christian town.’”

The lack of legal protections devastated the family’s finances. Paul spent about $1,400 ensuring the family’s legal papers were in order (compared to the $15 application fee for a Nebraska marriage license), but those legal documents offered little protection. The family had to sell their new home quickly, and at a huge loss. They abandoned Peter’s antique and art business. Peter and James moved to Pennsylvania, which legalized same-sex marriage this May.

After nine months of looking for a job and living off savings, Paul joined Peter and James in Pennsylvania. Paul eventually found a new job — at a 50 percent pay cut. He estimates the family lost $124,000, or about 70 percent of their savings.

States pay a price for discrimination, too. A Williams Institute report released in August showed that legalized same-sex marriage could pump $464 million in the economies of 11 states, in the first year alone — including some affected by the Court’s decision.

The Supreme Court’s decision to let lower court rulings in favor of marriage equality stand effectively weds equality to economic justice for LGBT families in more states. However, in passing up the opportunity to rule on marriage equality, the Court leaves LGBT families waiting at the altar a bit longer, in at least 20 more states.

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