The Obama administration generally has a policy of recognizing same-sex marriages for the purposes of federal benefits, but so far that hasn’t been the case for unions performed in Wisconsin, Indiana and Arkansas.
That’s why a number of pro-LGBT groups are stepping up the pressure on the Department of Justice to announce that the federal government will recognize the unions of same-sex couples who wed in those states when the jurisdictions briefly had marriage equality.
In a letter dated Sept. 19, 54 groups under the umbrella of the Respect for Marriage Coalition — including the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry — call on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to assert that same-sex marriages performed in Wisconsin, Indiana and Arkansas will be recognized.
“There is no legal reason to question the validity of these nearly 2,000 marriages,” the letter states. “Each was legally performed by a clerk representing the states of Arkansas, Indiana and Wisconsin, in accordance with each state’s statutes and constitution and by judicial order. There is simply no reason for the federal government not to respect these couples’ marriages and extend federal benefits.”
Holder has already announced that the Obama administration would recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah and Michigan following court rulings in those states that allowed marriage equality before stays were imposed on the decisions. But no such announcement has been made for same-sex marriages performed in Arkansas, Indiana and Wisconsin, where courts have similarly allowed same-sex couples to marry for brief periods of time.
On May 6 in Arkansas, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Chris Piazza determined the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, allowing more than 450 same-sex couples to marry in the state before the Arkansas Supreme Court placed a stay on the ruling two weeks later.
Exactly one month later on June 6 in Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Since she only imposed a stay on her decision one week after her initial ruling, an estimated 550 same-sex couples were able to wed in Wisconsin before the window of opportunity closed.
And on June 25, U.S. District Judge Richard Young struck down Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage. An estimated 550 same-sex couples married in the Indianapolis area alone before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals placed a stay on the decision.
In each instance, state officials have asserted that same-sex marriages performed in these jurisdictions won’t be recognized for the purposes of state benefits. But it’s unclear why the federal government hasn’t announced it would recognize these unions when it has already done the same for same-sex marriages performed in every other state.
Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokesperson, said the department “is reviewing the letter.”
Charlie Joughlin, an HRC spokesperson, said his organization learned of reports from the office Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) that same-sex couples married in Wisconsin were having trouble seeking federal benefits.
“With Utah and Michigan, the Department of Justice explicitly stated that the marriages performed in the window after federal court rulings would be recognized for the purpose of federal benefits,” Joughlin added. “We have not heard anything about Arkansas, Indiana and Wisconsin.”
The letter from the Respect for Marriage Coalition is just the latest request from LGBT groups calling on the Obama administration to recognize marriages performed in those states.
On June 24, HRC President Chad Griffin sent a letter to Holder calling on him to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Arkansas and Wisconsin. The ACLU of Indiana made the same request on July 11 for same-sex marriages performed in the Hoosier State.
Meanwhile, efforts continue for state recognition of these marriages. The ACLU of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against Gov. Scott Walker and other state officials on behalf of four same-sex couples who wed in Wisconsin. The refusal to recognize these marriages, the group alleges, violates their equal protection and due process under the U.S. Constitution.
In a similar case seeking state benefits for same-sex couples married in Utah, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary injunction requiring the state to recognize the unions. But the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on that injunction as the litigation continued.
At the same time, the ACLU of Indiana has declined to file a lawsuit seeking state benefits for same-sex couples who married in Indiana, saying the action by the Supreme Court with respect to Utah makes such a lawsuit unlikely to succeed before the marriage issue itself is finally settled.
But groups that are calling on Holder to declare that same-sex marriages in Wisconsin, Indiana and Arkansas will be recognized for federal purposes say such an action is consistent with favorable decisions the attorney general has made for same-sex couples over the course of the Obama administration, including discontinued defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court and interpreting the Supreme Court decision against the law to cover gay couples living in non-marriage equality states.
Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said continued discrimination against these couples calls for the Obama administration to demonstrate “the kind of leadership we’ve seen” with regard to same-sex marriages in other states.
“Married couples should be treated as what they are – married – fully able to share in the federal protections and responsibilities afforded other married couples,” Wolfson said. “The Respect for Marriage Coalition urges Attorney General Holder to apply that standard in these states as he has in others.”