What does the Hobby Lobby case have to do with me?

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Director

At first glance, the Hobby Lobby case – expected to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court any day now – doesn’t have much to do with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population, other than the fact that many LGBT individuals need access to contraception.   But, the truth is that the dangerous implications of this case for the LGBT community go well beyond the surface.

Here are the basics of the case: The Affordable Care Act requires private businesses to provide employees with healthcare plans that include preventative benefits (including FDA approved contraception).  Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties have argued that being required to offer certain types of contraception as part of their health care plans violates their religious freedom under the First Amendment.

Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, but it doesn’t give us the right to harm others. This is the first time the court will consider whether the Constitution or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protecting an individual’s exercise of religion, applies to for-profit companies and their owners.  If the Supreme Court decides that corporations are people with a right to refuse to comply with health-care mandates based on religious beliefs, the slope allowing companies to discriminate (for any number of reasons) at their own discretion would be way too slippery.  Today it is refusing access to certain types of birth control, but, as HRC notes, tomorrow, it could include refusing access to certain health services that “promote homosexuality” (for example, drugs that treat HIV, or access to family planning for same-sex parents) or acknowledge the health needs of transgender individuals.  The harmful implications are too numerous to count.

If the Supreme Court sides with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, the ripple effect could be quite damaging to the LGBT population, even beyond access to healthcare.  A plausible next step would be to allow business owners the right to refuse service to certain type of people based on their religious beliefs.  This ruling could also potentially have an impact on workplace nondiscrimination laws.

Even as we celebrate the anniversary of the DOMA ruling this week – and how far the nation has come toward marriage equality in the last year, the Hobby Lobby case is a stark reminder that we have a lot of work to do to ensure that LGBT individuals and families receive equal protection under our state and federal laws.  We hope the Court makes the right decision and keeps our country moving in the direction of fairness and equality.

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One year later….Celebrating the demise of DOMA

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Director

doma, one year later, 3One year ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor changed the trajectory of marriage equality in the United States.  By striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Court ruled that the federal government must not discriminate against married same-sex couples for the purposes of determining federal benefits and protections.

It was an historic and joyful day that paved the way for all married couples to be treated equally by the federal government.

Consistent with the decision, over the last year, there have been some big changes as federal agencies have worked to extend benefits to same-sex couples.   Some of the changes include:

  • Married same-sex couples can now file joint tax returns with the IRS;
  • The spouses of gay and lesbian military service members can now access the same benefits as other married couples;
  • Citizens and lawful permanent residents can now sponsor same-sex spouses for immigration benefits;
  • Married same-sex couples who work for the federal government now have the same access to health insurance and retirement benefits as their straight counterparts.

According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the implementation of the Windsor decision across the entire federal government is an accomplishment that reflects countless hours of hard work, cooperation, and coordination across agencies.   Read more in his memo to President Obama.

Even as we’ve made so much progress as a nation, unfortunately, in Virginia – and other states that don’t yet have the freedom to marry – married same-sex couples are still facing some barriers to receiving equal treatment from the federal government.   (In addition to being discriminated against under the laws of the Commonwealth, like being forced to file state taxes as individuals instead of married.)

President Obama recently announced that he has made a number of regulatory changes to extend a wide range of marriage benefits to same-sex couples regardless of where they live,  but there is a legal barrier to extending Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs benefits in states that don’t yet recognize marriage equality.

Why is this?  Most Federal Agencies are able to and have chosen to recognize marriages as valid based on the law of the jurisdiction where the marriage took place, called “place of celebration.”  Two agencies – the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs – are prohibited from adopting the “place of celebration” rule in most cases.  There is federal legislation that has been introduced to extend SSA and VA benefits to all couples regardless of where they live, and the Obama Administration has said they look forward to working with Congress to get a new law passed.  However, the reality of passing that law through the House of Representatives anytime soon is slim.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for that in Virginia.  Another huge positive development after the DOMA ruling is that since last June, 22 courts have ruled in favor of the freedom to marry (including the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling yesterday), and ZERO courts have ruled to continue to deny same-sex couples marriage! A Federal District Judge in Norfolk made one of those positive rulings, and now we are waiting for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to either uphold or reject the lower court’s ruling.  The ruling should be out any day now.

The momentum from the DOMA ruling has been spectacular and in Virginia, as we wait for a Federal Court of Appeals to decide the constitutionality of our ban on marriage, we can’t help but feel optimistic!

From allowing married same-sex couples access to many federal benefits regardless of where they live, to influencing 22 positive court rulings, the demise of DOMA has put the whole nation on the track toward equality.  The progress we have achieved is spectacular and is deserving of a huge celebration.  It has been a good year!


Stay up to date with the latest on what the DOMA ruling means for Virginians and be the first to know when the 4th Circuit rules on the marriage case!  Sign up to get our emails, and be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!