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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Uncle Sam Should Recognize All Marriages

Deb Price

A decade after falling in love, Massachusetts State Trooper Mary Ritchie and Kathy Bush became parents.

When Ryan was born, Bush postponed her career to be a stay-at-home mom. Not long afterward, Ryan was joined by brother William.

Once the sports-loving boys reached school age, Bush threw herself into the parent-teacher organization and into book fairs to raise money for their school. Ritchie, a crime scene investigator, continued to be the family's breadwinner.

In 2004, the moms were among the first same-sex couples to marry in Massachusetts, which treats all married couples equally under state law.

But, as a new, first-of-its-kind lawsuit spotlights, the federal government picks and chooses which Massachusetts marriages to honor.

The Massachusetts lawsuit -- filed by eight same-sex couples and three widowers -- asks the federal courts to declare unconstitutional the part of a 1996 federal law that says only heterosexual spouses are recognized by Uncle Sam for any of the 1,138 federal benefits linked to marital status.

That huge list includes receiving larger Social Security benefits based on a higher-earning spouse's income, filing taxes jointly, not having employer-provided spousal health care taxed as income, and health and pension benefits for spouses of federal workers.

The challenge to the misnamed Defense of Marriage Act doesn't seek to require other states to recognize same-sex marriages, only to stop the federal government from discriminating against ones legally recognized in such states as Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

The other faces behind the lawsuit include a 78-year-old who lost his spouse after 60 years together, federal workers, cancer survivors and the widower of former Rep. Gerry Studds.

At a March 3 press conference in Boston, the couples and widowers detailed financial hardships they've suffered because of the federal government's refusal to acknowledge the reality of their legal marriages.

Ritchie and Bush, for example, can't file federal income taxes jointly, meaning they've "overpaid" -- as they aptly put it -- $14,518 in just four years of marriage.

"This money could really help with monthly household expenses, paying down our mortgage and putting away money for our sons' college education," Ritchie said.

She also pointed out that, if she were killed in the line of duty, her spouse would be denied the federal $290,000 death benefit as well as the federal $850-a-month educational benefit that ordinarily goes to the families of slain law enforcement officers.

But perhaps the most poignant story was told by Herbert Burtis, who lost the man he fell in love with in 1948 -- Harvard's choirmaster -- to Parkinson's disease last summer.

"After more than a half-century together ... there was a hole in my life that would never be filled," said Burtis, who recounted creating a "one-bed nursing home" to care for his deteriorating husband.

"It was at this time that I discovered that after having paid Social Security taxes all of our lives, I would not receive either his death benefit or his Social Security benefit, which was considerably higher than mine," Burtis said, adding the $700-a-month difference in his Social Security check could pay medical bills not covered by Medicare.

The federal government has no business picking and choosing among state-recognized marriages. If Congress won't reverse itself, the courts should step in.

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Deb Price of the Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

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