Oregon Marriage Equality Update: The Institution Has Had a Great Summer

With the overturning of portions of DOMA in June and two recent enormous infusions of support from both the federal government, via a policy change at the IRS, and the business community, from of all places Wal-Mart, the LBGTQ community has much to celebrate.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, in an announcement covered by Reuters on Aug. 29, “Today’s ruling 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.”

marriageequalityMore than just recognition at the federal level that their oaths of love and commitment to each other are valid, the new policy will also provide, retroactively to 2010, gay couples with previously unpaid benefits, like the Marriage Tax Credit, exemption from the Estate Tax, or Earned Income Tax credit, which for some could amount to several thousand dollars.

Beyond just the Treasury Department policy change, the nation’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart, is also poised to jump on the marriage equality bandwagon.

An internal memo was leaked, and confirmed via Forbes, stating that starting in January of 2014 Wal-Mart will recognize all domestic partnerships, both heterosexual and homosexual, regardless of whether or not the parties are “married.”

“The full suite of our benefits will be available to domestic partners. This includes medical, dental, vision, spouse/partner life insurance, discount card, family leave, 401(k), critical illness, and accident insurance.”

While some might be quick to call this evidence of some kind of “homosexual agenda,” Wal-Mart execs explicitly stated that, “It’s a business decision, not a moral or political decision. By developing a single definition for all Wal-Mart associates in the US and Puerto Rico, we are able to ensure consistency for associates across our markets.”

It is telling that, in an internal memo penned by the Senior Vice President of benefits and distributed via postcard to all associates and executives, they recognize the changing demographics of today’s workforce. From the memo, “Given the diverse world we live in today, a comprehensive benefit package that includes domestic partner benefits appeals to the contemporary workforce.”

If the LBGTQ community needed any more evidence that the nation is finally coming around to supporting marriage equality these announcements surely fit the bill.

So while the rest of the nation is finally moving in the right direction, now is surely the time to press for true marriage equality here in Oregon. Because right here at home, there is still much work that needs to be done in order to move Oregon beyond “separate but equal” status for same-sex couples and towards true marriage equality.

Oregon voters, in 2004, passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex “marriage” by defining marriage as only between one man and one woman.

However, since 2007 and the passage of HB 2007, the state has also recognized domestic partnerships, which are supposed to have all of the benefits of “marriage” but are not called “marriage.”

This fits the classic definition of “separate but equal,” which was ruled unconstitutional in regards to race discrimination nearly 50 years ago.

This policy of “separate but equal” has in fact already led to discrimination and legal challenges, most recently in front of the US Ninth Circuit

In this case a US public defender in Portland, Allison Clark, who was legally married in Canada, a nation whose contracts we routinely recognize, filed for health benefits for her spouse and was denied because according to the Oregon Constitution a “spouse” can only be of the opposite sex and a “marriage” can only be between “one man and one woman.”

Because of Oregon’s simultaneous recognition of domestic partnerships and constitutional ban against same-sex marriage, a de facto separate but equal framework exists where the partnerships of one class of citizens are “valued” more than the partnerships of another class.

Fortunately, although with little to no effect promised outside the court system, Judge Harry Pregerson ruled that, “Under rational basis review, Measure 36 does not pass constitutional muster. While other possible objectives for Measure 36 exist, I can see no objective that is rationally related to banning same-sex marriages, other than the objective of denigrating homosexual relationships.” He ordered the courts administrative office to  provide benefits to the plaintiff.

While some institutions and businesses, like Hobby Lobby and Target, have resisted the changing times, OSU is leading the way with a very broad interpretation of HB 2007 which allows it to “provide benefits and services, within the purview of the University, to the non-registered same-sex or heterosexual ‘domestic partner’ of an employee or student.”

Whereas the state requires recognition for benefits to kick in, OSU provides access to recreational facilities and the library for both partners/spouses of student and faculty. They also provide health benefits and staff fee privileges “for registered or unregistered domestic partners/spouses of staff and faculty.” They also provide, again “for registered or unregistered domestic partners/spouses of students,” access to student health insurance and student family housing as well as student ticket pricing for athletic events.

As the country continues to move, sometimes at a glacial pace, towards marriage equality and acceptance of the LBGTQ community, it is incumbent on all of us to not stop, to never give up, and to refuse to accept “separate but equal” or other half measures. We are only as free as the least of our community are.

By William Tatum