Tag Archives: Marriage equality

IRS Ruling a Victory for Married Same-Sex Couples Across the Country!

Tara R. Pfeifer, WLP Staff Attorney

The Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department announced yesterday that the federal government will recognize the marriages of legally married same-sex couples for all federal tax purposes, regardless of where those couples reside.

This landmark ruling comes on the heels of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor in which the Court overturned a key provision (Section 3) of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Section 3 defined the terms “marriage” and “spouse” for purposes of federal law as pertaining only to legal unions between one man and one woman.  Yesterday’s announcement clarifies that when it comes to evaluating the federal tax status of same-sex married couples, it is the “place of celebration” – where the wedding took place – that controls, not the state where the couple resides.  Thus, same-sex couples that marry in one of the states where same-sex marriage is legal, such as New York or Massachusetts, but reside in Pennsylvania will be recognized as married by the IRS and Treasury Department for federal tax purposes.

Pursuant to this new policy, all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, IRA contributions, child tax credits, gift and estate taxes, etc. will apply to all legally married same-sex couples.  The Treasury Department further announced that, under the policy, refunds can be filed for the prior three years’ returns (2010, 2011, and 2012). According to Jacob Lew, Treasury Secretary, this interpretation “provides certainty and clear, coherent tax filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide.  It provides access to benefits, responsibilities and protections under federal tax law that all Americans deserve.”

While there is still significant progress to be made to achieve marriage equality rights in Pennsylvania and most other states, yesterday’s ruling is a tremendous victory and step forward for married same-sex couples.

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Filed under Federal Court, Government, Internal Revenue Service, LGBTQ, Marriage Equality

Women’s Law Project and ACLU fight for domestic partner benefits for Pittsburgh teacher

By Susan Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney

The Women’s Law Project has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh attorney Fred Goldsmith to challenge the refusal of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) to provide domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners.

The plaintiff in the case is a math teacher named Bradley Ankney, who filed a civil action today in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas seeking the same health insurance and other benefits for his partner that the AIU routinely provides to its employees’ opposite-sex spouses.

Ankney has worked for the AIU for twelve years.  He teaches math at the AIU’s Regional Educational Support Center in McKees Rocks, an alternative school for students in grades 7-12 who have been temporarily excluded from their school or in transition from another school or placement.  His students are clients of the Allegheny County Juvenile Court and Children and Youth Services.

In 2009, the Allegheny County Council passed a Human Relations Act that explicitly bans employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In Pennsylvania, same-sex couples are still forbidden to marry, so conditioning employment benefits on marriage discriminates against gay and lesbian employees in violation of the County ordinance. It also violates the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, because it treats employees differently based on the sex of their partners.

Ankney’s statement to the press says it all: “My partner and I are average taxpaying American citizens who happen to be gay and in a long-term respectful relationship with each other,” said Ankney. “Normally we are private individuals who do not like sharing private details of our personal lives with others, but we feel it is important to speak out regarding the AIU’s discriminatory policies.”

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit should follow the lead of the many other school districts in Allegheny County that provide benefits to employees with same-sex domestic partners, including Upper St Clair, Keystone Oaks, Allegheny Valley, West Mifflin and Fox Chapel.

Ankney is represented by Sara Rose of the ACLU-PA, Susan Frietsche and Tara Pfeifer of the Women’s Law Project, and Fred Goldsmith of the law firm Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC.  You can see a copy of the complaint or visit our web site for more information.

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Filed under Allegheny County, Allegheny County Council, Domestic Partnership, LGBTQ

Federal Court in Philadelphia Applies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling to Uphold Spousal Death Benefits

By Hillary Scrivani, WLP Legal Intern

Just over a month ago in United States v. Windsor, the United States Supreme Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal laws and therefore federal benefits, was unconstitutional.  The Court held that DOMA violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution because its purpose was based on a desire to harm and was therefore improper.  The Court reasoned that if a state wishes to grant equal marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the federal government has no power to infringe upon that state policy by treating same-sex marriages differently under federal law.  Though the decision is unquestionably a victory for same-sex marriage, it left many questions unanswered.  Already, lower federal courts are beginning to address these questions. On July 29, 2013, Judge Darnell Jones of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held in Cozen O’Connor v. Tobits that a same-sex marriage that took place in Canada, and was later celebrated in a ceremony in Illinois, would be recognized as valid for the purposes of death benefits for spouses from an employee benefits plan administered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The story surrounding the case is heart-wrenching.  Sarah Ellyn Farley married her partner Jennifer Tobits in Canada in February of 2006.  They only got to spend a short amount of time together as a married couple because Ms. Farley was diagnosed with cancer shortly after their marriage, and passed away in September of 2010.  As if the loss of her spouse was not enough, Ms. Tobits had to face a competing claim for the death benefits entitled to surviving spouses under the employee benefits profit sharing plan administered by Ms. Farley’s company.  Ms. Farley’s parents, who under the plan would default to receive the benefits if the deceased employee did not have a spouse, asserted that they were entitled to the benefits because Ms. Tobits should not be viewed as a spouse under the plan.

The Employment Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), both federal laws, require Ms. Farley’s employee benefits plan to meet certain qualifications.  These qualifications include mandatory spousal benefits provisions.  The plan explicitly requires that it be construed in accordance with ERISA and the IRC, meaning that the terms in the plan are to be supplied by ERISA and the IRC if they are not defined within it.

The Tobits court reasoned that because “spouse” is not defined in the plan beyond the requirement that a spouse must have been married to the deceased employee for at least a year before receiving benefits, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was found to be unconstitutional in Windsor, under ERISA and the IRC, and therefore the plan, the word “spouse” now includes a person in a valid same-sex marriage.

The court then assessed whether the marriage between Ms. Tobits and Ms. Farley was valid in order for them to be considered spouses under federal law and in turn the employee benefits plan.  The court stated that because their Canadian marriage certificate was valid, and because they had another ceremony to celebrate their marriage in Illinois (where the couple resided prior to Ms. Farley’s death and where state law would consider Ms. Tobits to be Ms. Farley’s spouse under an employee benefits plan), under the requirement of Windsor that federal laws acknowledge valid state marriages, Ms. Tobits is the surviving spouse of Ms. Farley for purposes of the benefits plan and is entitled to the death benefits.

The decision in Tobits is a step in the right direction for widespread recognition of same-sex marriages.  Given that marriage is mainly governed by state law, it was unclear what impact the holding of Windsor would have on certain benefits for same-sex spouses in other jurisdictions and under different factual circumstances. This case shows Windsor being applied to preserve equal treatment of same-sex marriages in a very specific situation, despite some states’ continuing hostile treatment of same-sex couples seeking equal marriage rights.

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Filed under LGBT, Marriage Equality, same-sex marriage, Sexual orientation

Illinois Gay Marriage Ban Challenged

Guest Blogger: Elizabeth Wingfield, Former WLP Intern

On May 30th, two dozen same-sex couples filed two separate law suits challenging the Illinois law that defines marriage as between a man and woman, which prohibits same-sex couples from marrying. Last year, Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples which offer them the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples enjoy in marriage. However, Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos, one of the couples who filed a lawsuit against the Cook County Clerk’s office, argue that it is unconstitutional that they are not allowed to be married. In an article in the Huffington Post, Santos is quoted as saying, “Marriage means never having to explain that you are just like everyone else. My kids have to explain our relationship all the time and they shouldn’t have to.”

The lawsuits are led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois and Lambda Legal, respectively. The Post reported that

John King, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the ACLU of Illinois, said he thinks that the timing for the lawsuits is right — given rapidly shifting public sentiment and the support of powerful elected officials — and that the impact of a successful suit in Illinois could be powerful. “Wins in big, important states like Illinois are huge for this country,” King said.

The lawsuits come less than a month after President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage and, according to the New York Times, “recent public opinion surveys indicate support for same-sex marriage is rising nationwide.”

While there is currently a bill which would legalize same-sex marriage pending in Illinois legislature, advocates are fighting for equality in multiple venues to try and ensure that marriage law in Illinois does not continue to discriminate against same-sex couples. Indeed, according to the Times, John Knight, director of the ACLU’s gay-related litigation in the Midwest said that the group intended to “fight the battle in both [the legislative and judiciary] venues.”

We will keep you updated about this issue.

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Filed under LGBT, Marriage Equality, Sexuality

Federal Court in Pennsylvania to Decide Death Benefits Dispute Involving a Surviving Same-Sex Spouse

A death benefits dispute between a surviving same-sex spouse and the decedent’s parents took center stage on Monday, March 12th, when U.S. District Court Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania heard oral arguments from the attorneys for the parties.  This case is being closely watched across the nation because it is the first case in which a private employer has claimed that the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) prohibits it from providing equal benefits to same-sex spouses.  While the principal parties in the case – the surviving spouse, Jennifer Tobits, and the decedents’ parents, David and Joan Farley – both argued that the Court need not address the constitutionality of DOMA to resolve their dispute and instead, only analyze and interpret the language of the pension plan, the potential implications of the Court’s decision are momentous.  If the Court concludes that DOMA applies to the pension plan at issue, the ruling would result in a unprecedented extension of DOMA to private, non-governmental actors and jeopardize the rights of numerous private employees who are married to same-sex spouses and currently entitled to benefits under the private pension plans of countless employers, including small businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and law firms.  Teresa S. Renaker, one of Ms. Tobits’ attorneys, pointed out to the Court that any such application would be a “radical expansion of DOMA’s reach far beyond its intended public-sector scope and into private-sector employment.”

Ms. Tobits legally married Sarah Ellyn Farley in Canada in 2006, a mere two weeks before Ms. Farley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  After battling the disease together for four years, Ms. Farley died in 2010 at the age of 37.  After Ms. Farley’s death, Ms. Farley’s parents, who never approved of their daughter’s sexual orientation or her marriage to Ms. Tobits, attempted to collect Ms. Farley’s pension plan proceeds from her employer, Cozen O’Connor, a national law firm where Ms. Farley worked for six years as an attorney in its Chicago, Illinois, office.  Under Cozen O’Connor’s pension plan, a surviving spouse receives a deceased employee’s death benefit and “spouse” is defined in the plan as the person to whom an employee has been married for at least one year.  Nothing in the plan states that same-sex spouses are excluded.  Rather than paying the benefit to Ms. Tobits, Cozen O’Connor instead initiated this lawsuit, claimed that DOMA prevents it from paying the benefit to Ms. Tobits, and asked the Court to decide who is entitled to the benefit.  Because the Court asked the parties to address the constitutionality of DOMA in the context of resolving this dispute, two governmental entities intervened in the case – the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (“BLAG”) of the United States House of Representatives.  The DOJ contends that DOMA is unconstitutional and should be stricken, while BLAG defends DOMA.

Notably, during the pendency of this federal action, an Illinois state court ruled that Ms. Farley and Ms. Tobits were legally married in Canada and that Ms. Tobits is entitled to all of the rights and protections afforded to spouses under Illinois law.  This ruling resulted from a probate action filed by the Farleys after their daughter died in which the Farleys falsely claimed that their daughter was single and asked the court to appoint Ms. Farley’s father as the administrator of his daughter’s estate.  In reaching its decision, the Illinois court rejected the Farleys’ claims and appointed Ms. Tobits, the surviving spouse, as the administrator of Ms. Farley’s estate.

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Filed under Domestic Partnership, LGBT, Marriage Equality, Pennsylvania

What We’re Reading: 2011 was a Banner Year for LGBT Rights

Many online publications have been calling attention to the huge gains advocates have made towards equality for LGBT people this year. While we must recognize that we still have awhile to go to reach equality for all United States citizens, it is important to also celebrate our victories. Below we have compiled a list of some of our favorite stories. Please add your own favorite LGBT victory from 2011 in comments.

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Filed under LGBT, Marriage Equality, Sexual orientation, What We're Reading

Gay Couples Less Likely to Have Access to Health Care Benefits

The Bureau of Labor Statistics added two questions about domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples to their National Compensation Survey, resulting in the first comprehensive count of domestic partner health care benefits by a federal government agency.  The survey revealed that only one-third of workers in the U.S. have access to health care for same-sex partners.

Among all U.S. employers, 31% provide coverage for unmarried opposite-sex partners, whereas only 21% of U.S. employers provide coverage for same-sex partners, regardless of their marriage status.  These discriminatory health care trends are not just evidenced in  those states where gay marriage is illegal.  Indeed, “even in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, only 71% of employers reported offering benefits to same-sex spouses in 2009, as opposed to 93% who give them to opposite-sex spouses.”

Because gay employees are less likely to receive health insurance for their partners than their counterparts in opposite-sex relationships, their families spend more on average for health insurance.  M.V. Lee Badgett, the research director of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law told MSN that roughly 3 in 4 of those in same-sex partnerships obtain health care through purchasing additional health care for their partner from their employer.  She noted that “some may choose not to sign up their partners because of the higher tax hit or due to a fear that they will encounter discrimination at work if they disclose having a same-sex partner.”  For those couples that do not purchase additional insurance through an employer, some obtain individual plans, though an unsettling number of partners in same-sex relationships cannot find any affordable coverage.

The fact that many in same-sex partnerships lack access to insurance likely leads to lower-quality health care.  Even those in same-sex relationships who are lucky enough to be covered by an employer’s insurance have increased health risks.  If the partner whose employer provides health insurance loses that job, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (which allows individuals to continue their coverage for limited periods of time after the voluntary or involuntary loss of their jobs) does not extend to same-sex partners.

You can find out more about groups whose health is jeopardized as a result of discrimination here.

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Filed under Gender Discrimination, Health insurance, LGBT, Marriage Equality, Sex Discrimination, Sexual orientation

T-shirt re-opens discussion on marriage equality in U.S.

Radio listeners in the Pittsburgh region tuned in to KDKA radio at 8pm last Friday night to listen to Sue Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney at the Women’s Law Project in Pittsburgh, weigh in on a recent controversy at Dollywood’s Splash Country water park in Tennessee.

As a guest to Johnna Pro’s evening radio show on KDKA, Sue Frietsche commented on the story and the inequality the LGBT community faces.

“We still face frequent, severe discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing, and education. As a nation, we pay lip service to equality and justice, but the truth is that we have failed to protect LGBT families from unfairness, exclusion, and bigotry.”

Surprisingly this controversy was sparked by a simple message on a t-shirt.

 On July 9th, Jennifer Tipton and Olivier Odom visited Dollywood’s Splash Country water park with friends and their friends’ children. While entering the park, Odom was stopped at the park’s gates and quietly asked to turn her shirt inside out. The reason? Her t-shirt read, “Marriage is so gay.”

Dollywood parks enforce a dress code policy that bans clothing deemed offensive or inappropriate. What constitutes “offensive” is left to park attendants to decide. The park attendant justified his decision by saying that the t-shirt was offensive because Dollywood is a “family park.”

“That’s what we found so offensive — that he said it was a family park,” Tipton said. “Families come in a wide range of definitions these days and we were with our family.”

For many in the gay community, this story was surprising. Dolly Parton is well-known for her acceptance and support of the LGBT population. However, after two weeks of silence, Parton released a statement apologizing to Odom and her family.

“Everyone knows my personal support of the gay and lesbian community. Dollywood is a family park and all families are welcome.”

Because of the media attention they have received, Odom and Tipton are using their story as an opportunity to broadcast the inequality millions of other LGBT people face- even in amusement parks.

Odom stated, “If marriage equality is going to happen, it’s not going to happen if people sit at home quietly.”

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Filed under Equality, LGBT, Marriage Equality, Sexual orientation

Gay Couple Spared Deportation

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage and so strips same-sex married couples of the rights that opposite-sex married couples enjoy. For this reason, Henry Velandia, a Venezuelan man, was in danger of being deported, which would have separated him from Josh Vandiver, who he legally married in Connecticut. Luckily, on June 29th, federal officials canceled the deportation of Henry Velandia.

The victory for the couple came after a Newark immigration judge suspended Velandia’s deportation last month to give the government more time to consider the issue. Velandia sent a request that his deportation proceedings be canceled to the Department of Homeland Security which the Department agreed to.

This news comes in a flurry of news surrounding DOMA and immigration policies. In February the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA in courts but that it would still enforce it. Advocates then asked the Obama administration to suspend deportations of married same-sex couples until the constitutionality of DOMA is settled. The decision on Velandia’s deportation proceedings “came as federal immigration officials were thoroughly reviewing their deportation policies.”

While it is certainly good news that Henry and Jose will not be separated as a result of DOMA, the fight towards marriage equality is still far from over. It is possible that this decision could lead to the cancellation of other deportations for those in a same-sex marriage but advocate.com notes that “it does not settle the question of federal recognition for same-sex marriages.” Until DOMA is repealed and same-sex marriage is legalized, couples like Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia will not be free from the fear of their spouse’s deportation. To find out what you can do to help ensure marriage equality, visit Freedom to Marry’s “Take Action” page.

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Filed under Equality, LGBT, Marriage Equality, Sexual orientation

What We’re Reading: Marriage Equality

WLP staffers have noticed many recent news stories covering the fight for marriage equality in the US and around the globe. Due to the volume of news on this topic, it is impossible for us to write a blog post on all newsworthy stories. Instead, a compilation of links to the stories that have piqued our interest this week can be found below.

Have we missed something? Please share more news related to the fight for marriage equality in comments.

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Filed under Equality, LGBT, What We're Reading