Gay Married Couples Explore New Benefits

Same-sex couples are still processing how the Supreme Court's recent rulings on gay marriage could change their lives and their relationship to the government: from health insurance, to retirement, to green cards. For more, host Michel Martin speaks with Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I am Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing our focus on the Supreme Court and some of the cases that sparked some of the most interest this term - in part because of how much they will immediately affect the lives of many people.

We're turning now to same-sex marriage. There the court overturned a federal law denying federal benefits to same-sex couples. In a few minutes we will hear from a pastor who opposes same-sex marriage, and we'll talk about what this means for him and his congregation. But first we are hearing about the gay and lesbian Americans who are already experiencing some big changes from employment benefits to immigration status.

Susan Sommer is with us, senior counsel of Lambda Legal - that's an LGBT rights legal organization and she's with us now to talk us through some of those changes. Susan Summer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SUSAN SOMMER: Thanks, it's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: I presume that you've been hearing from a lot of gay and lesbian couples since the ruling, and we understand that there are lots of celebrations, but what questions are you getting now?

SOMMER: Well, we are getting an extraordinary number of questions about what it really means day-to-day for same-sex couples to be able to access federal rights and protections.

MARTIN: Well, we understand that the government has already started to extend certain benefits to same-sex spouses of federal employees. Can you talk about that?

SOMMER: That's right. Already we're seeing benefits being offered by the OPM - the Office of Personnel Management, that oversees all the benefits for federal employees. OPM, first out of the box, issued guidelines for federal employees and told them that they now have a two-month window from the date of the Supreme Court's decision - June 26 to August 26th - to apply to add spouses, and in some cases children of spouses, to such benefits as their health insurance, or dental, vision insurance.

MARTIN: And does that only apply to people who live - who reside in states where same-sex marriage is now legal?

SOMMER: No, it does not. OPM has made crystal clear in guidance that no matter what state you live in - even if you live in a state that discriminates against your marriage and refuses to respect your marriage - you are still eligible for an array of federal employee benefits.

MARTIN: If you were legally married. Like so, for example, if you got married in Massachusetts or the District of Columbia, which is not a state but which does recognize same-sex marriage, and you happen to move to another state that does not recognize that marriage, then you're eligible. Is that it?

SOMMER: That's correct, you are eligible.

MARTIN: And what about immigration? I understand that there's a big effect there.

SOMMER: Immigration is another area where we've seen immediate, wonderful effects of the Supreme Court ruling. Married same-sex couples have already begun to get green cards for the non-citizen spouse and we understand that government offices are being flooded with applicants, and there too - doesn't matter where you live - if you live in a state that doesn't respect your marriage so long as you are married, the federal government is able to treat you as married.

MARTIN: Now that federal law has some resolution, do you see evidence that more states have been grappling with the legality of same-sex marriage? Because I think it is worth remembering that before this court ruling and before the recent run of legal victories for same-sex couples, 30 states had outlawed - more than 30 as I recall - had specifically outlawed same-sex marriage as a matter of state law. And I'm just wondering if you're seeing any revisiting of that, or any legal efforts to challenge that using the federal guidelines as a model?

SOMMER: We already are seeing renewed and increased challenges. Lambda Legal has filed a motion in our case in the state of New Jersey saying that confining same-sex couples only to civil union in New Jersey violates the constitutional rights of those couples, and the fact that New Jersey cuts those couples off from access to federal benefits by withholding the gateway to those benefits - that's marriage - New Jersey is doing a real injustice to its gay and lesbian residents.

MARTIN: And speaking of another constitutional question, though - there are religious leaders who have continually expressed concern that they will now be compelled to perform ceremonies or confer other benefits within their religious practice to same-sex couples, even if that violates their religious tenets. Can you speak to that, or have you had that query as well?

SOMMER: We should put those concerns to rest. That's really a bugaboo that's not going to happen. No religion congregation or clergy person is going to be required to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. That's not what the Supreme Court decisions were about. The Supreme Court's DOMA ruling was about access to federal government provided benefits - not anything to do with the freedom to make decisions for religious practices.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this, and it's a bit of an amorphous question - what has been the tenor of the conversations that you have had though, since the ruling? I'm just kind of interested in more, you know, the atmospherics. I mean, for many people - we are going to hear another perspective in a minute - but for many people who do support same-sex marriage rights this has been a very long day in coming.

I mean, a number of the people whom we've seen speaking in recent years have been couples who are in their senior years and who've been together for many, many years, as well as a lot of younger people who assumed that this was coming. I'm just wondering what the tenor of the conversations are in your office now about this? I mean, do you feel that you've now reached a tipping point, where at some point your work will, in some ways, be done?

SOMMER: Well, no doubt the wind is in our sails. The Supreme Court's ruling in the DOMA case and the California marriage case came 10 years to the day from the Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down sodomy prohibitions that had targeted gay and lesbian Americans. We are seeing tremendous progress just over that decade, and we now live in a country where a third of all Americans, roughly, live in states where they have access to the right to marry for same-sex couples. It was an incredibly joyous day when the Supreme Court ruled on June 26th.

MARTIN: Is there any other issue that we have not considered that has not yet received enough public attention that you would like to raise about this new era?

SOMMER: Well, I think the fact that some states are only offering civil union and domestic partnership, and other states are providing no relationship recognition or protections for committed same-sex couples seems that much crueler and that much more nonsensical in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings the other day. Now states are depriving not only same-sex couples and their families, but their entire community of important federal protections that could be flowing into those states.

And I hope that the Supreme Court's rulings will just increase the heat of those conversations and bring us closer to a nation where it's not just about a third of Americans who live in states where there's the freedom to marry, but where we all do.

MARTIN: Susan Sommer is senior counsel of Lambda Legal. That's an LGBT rights legal organization. She was with us from NPR New York. Susan Sommer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SOMMER: Thanks so much for having me today.

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