Supreme Court decisions won't affect NC law now

Jun. 26, 2013 @ 07:35 PM

As opponents and advocates of gay marriage put their best spin on two U.S. Supreme Court decisions Wednesday, a woman married to a female soldier at Fort Bragg rejoiced in the knowledge that she would now be able to share her spouse's benefits, such as federal health insurance.

"This has been a long time coming, as you can imagine," said Ashley Broadway, her voice cracking. "Now Heather can serve her country knowing that the military will take care of her family, God forbid something would happen to her. We still have a long way to go, as far as marriage equality throughout the country, but as a military spouse it is a great day to be an American."

Broadway married Lt. Col. Heather Mack in Washington, D.C., and the couple has a 3-year-old son and 6-month-old girl. She didn't qualify for federal health insurance of military death benefits, and same-sex couples can't live in on-base housing.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the Pentagon will begin the process to extend health care, housing and other federal benefits to the same-sex spouses of military members as soon as possible after a Supreme Court ruling that struck down a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act. The justices ruled 5-4 to strike down the part of DOMA, a federal anti-gay marriage law that has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits.

The day was far from all good news for gay rights advocates.

In a case out of California, the high court said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in that state and about three dozen others, including North Carolina. And a separate provision of the federal marriage law that allows a state to not recognize a same-sex union from elsewhere remains in place.

In the California decision, the justices voted 5-4 to let stand a trial court's August 2010 ruling that overturned the state's voter-approved gay marriage ban. The justices held the coalition of religious conservative groups that qualified Proposition 8 for the ballot did not have authority to defend it after state officials refused to do so.

The practical effect of the Supreme Court ruling, however, is likely to be more legal wrangling before the state can begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time since Proposition 8 passed in November 2008.

Practical effects were more immediate for military members, including Pvt. Allison Hanson and Sgt. Karen Alexander, an Army training program for chemical, biological and nuclear warfare, who met in 2010. They got married last year in Washington, D.C., but have been living in a pricey off-base apartment because they didn't qualify to share military housing because their marriage wasn't recognized. Alexander is based at Fort Bragg, while Hanson is on inactive status with the Utah National Guard so they can be together.

"I've been in tears of joy all morning, trying to hold myself together," Hanson said. "It means I'm a spouse, that I'm the wife of an active-duty soldier. I'm not the friend. I'm not her roommate. This is a game-changer. By law, I am now her wife, no different than any of the other military wives. "

Hanson has a 5-year-old son from a prior marriage, who will now be eligible for federal health insurance and other military family benefits.

"He was not considered Karen's stepson until today," Hanson said. "As his mother, that's huge for me."

The mixed decisions from the court brought mixed and sometimes muted reactions in North Carolina, which approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage in May 2012. "We are thankful that North Carolina's marriage amendment is not immediately impacted by the ruling," Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, said in a statement. "Citizens in the 50 states are still free to debate, discuss and defend marriage."

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he didn't believe that Wednesday's rulings would cause North Carolina legislators to consider giving voters a chance to remove the constitutional amendment approved in 2012 that bans gay marriage and civil unions in North Carolina.

"We amended the constitution. If there's a desire to amend the constitution the other way, we'd see a bill or ... we'd see the effort to do that," said Berger, who supported putting the 2012 amendment on the ballot. "I don't think that the public opinion is any different now than it was when the public voted 61 percent in favor of the amendment."

Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, the state's only openly gay legislator, said the rulings are a historic moment not just for gays "but for every person in this this country who believes in the principles of equality, justice and civil rights."

"After last year's crushing step backward with the passage of Amendment One here in North Carolina, it is encouraging to see that the rest of the nation is continuing to move forward," he said.

The executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality noted that the court's decisions were unlikely to help gay rights advocates in North Carolina or anywhere in the South.

" ... we lives in a region of the country that is not likely to adopt same-sex marriage on a state-by-state basis in the near future despite growing public support for marriage equality," the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. "Fundamental civil rights such as marriage and protection from discrimination in employment must be granted to all citizens of the United States, regardless of which state they call home."

Equality NC painted a brighter picture of the decisions' effect in North Carolina, saying it's a sign of cultural shift that could move to other states.

"The Supreme Court itself has stated 14 times that marriage is a fundamental right; by winning the freedom to marry more states and more hearts and minds, we can not only set the stage for making that case again before the Court — be it before these or other justices — but also to make the case to an ever-growing number of LGBT allies who support marriage and other forms of equality here in North Carolina," said Stuart Campbell, Equality NC's executive director.

Last year, Broadway was denied membership in the officers' spouses club because she did not have a spouse identification badge issued by the military because of DOMA. Though she and Mack have been together for 15 years, the only pass base officials would provide to Broadway names her as their children's caregiver — the same credential given to nannies.

However, she was later admitted into the spouses club following public pressure.

After Wednesday's DOMA ruling, she said she would resist the temptation to immediately request a military spouse ID.

"Of course we all want to run down to the ID office and get in the system be equal to other military families, but we do need to wait for instructions from the Pentagon and hopefully they will have something in place," she said.