As I often discuss with my colleagues in the Senate, I am so proud of how Washington state is leading the way – growing our small businesses and our economy, protecting the environment, educating our children, and so much more. I also could not be more proud of our state’s history of protecting the rights of all our citizens, including our thriving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Thanks to organizations such as the GSBA, Washington is a place where all of our residents can live and thrive without the threat of being discriminated against because of who they are or who they love.
Of course, a major milestone in protecting these rights was when former Governor Christine Gregoire signed our marriage equality bill into law in 2012. It was a day of joy and celebration for all of the loving, committed LGBT couples in our state – and for all of us who respect and support them. It was also a day of joy for many in our border states, such as Idaho, whose residents were now able to travel to Washington and finally, legally marry who they love.
This victory only became sweeter last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and found that the federal government may not, through its statutes, create two classes of marriage. This paved the way for all married couples to receive equal access to federal protections and benefits. However, despite the Court’s ruling, when it comes to Social Security spousal benefits, same-sex marriages are currently classified as valid only if the couple lives in a state where marriage equality is recognized. So even though those Idahoans are legally married, in the unfortunate instance of the death of their spouse they’re unable to access the Social Security benefits that they’ve earned. As a result, their Social Security applications have been put on hold.
With support from organizations like the GSBA, Pride Foundation, and Human Rights Campaign, Colorado Senator Mark Udall and I have come together to remove this unnecessary burden on families who are already suffering from the loss of a loved one. While we believe the Social Security Administration can, and should, resolve this inconsistency through administrative action, our bill –named the Social Security and Marriage Equality or SAME Act – provides a roadmap to ensure equal access for all. In addition, the SAME Act would provide more consistency among federal agency policies, falling in line with the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Justice, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and many other federal agencies, which currently recognize all marriages regardless of where they live.
This current delay of spousal benefit claims by the Social Security Administration not only places an unfair economic burden on legally married LGBT spouses, but also an extremely emotional one. While I believe the Administration has made significant strides toward equal treatment of all marriages under federal law, your zip code should not determine whether or not your family will have access to the Social Security benefits that they’ve earned.
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, in states such as Pennsylvania and our neighbors in Oregon, marriage equality is becoming a reality for more and more Americans. But, there is still work that must be done to ensure that equality does not end at state lines. I’m hopeful our colleagues in the Senate and in the Social Security Administration agree and help move quickly to resolve this inequality.