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Gay couples sue Utah to recognize their marriages

Elenor Heyborne, Marina Gomberg, Matt Barazza, Tony Milner, ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, gay news, Washington Blade

Elenor Heyborne (on left) and Marina Gomberg; Matt Barazza, Tony Milner (left) and Jesse (center) are suing Utah to recognize their marriages. (Photos courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union)

For Matt Barazza, government recognition of his marriage in Utah is important not only to him and his spouse, Tony Milner, but also to the four-year-old child whom they’ve raised since his birth.

After marrying in their home state of Utah on Dec. 20 — the first day same-sex marriage came to Utah — the couple submitted paperwork for a second-parent adoption of the child, Jesse, and received a hearing date of Jan. 10. But plans changed after Gov. Gary Herbert announced the state wouldn’t recognize Utah same-sex marriages in the wake of a stay on the weddings from the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a consequence, the judge presiding over the request for second-parent adoption pushed back the hearing to Jan. 31, and Barazza and Milner elected to join a proposed lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure Utah would recognize the more than 1,300 gay weddings performed in the state.

“That’s the primary reason for us filing the lawsuit at this point was to have the Utah courts make a decision and recognize that our marriage is legal, so that we can go forward with the second-parent adoption and try and get the protections that we can for our son,” Barazza told the Washington Blade on Monday.

While Barazza, 38, an attorney, and Milner, 33, a director of a non-profit that serves homeless families, are both raising Jesse in Salt Lake City, only Barazza is recognized as the adoptive parent because under Utah law, only one of the two was able to adopt the child. The couple also legally married in D.C. in 2010, but elected to do so again when same-sex marriage came to Utah so they could wed in their home state.

But with their marriage no longer recognized by Utah, Barazza said he lives in constant fear of what might happen because of the lack of legal recognition between his partner and their son.

“You fear the worst case scenario always,” Barazza said. “As the one who’s the legal parent, if anything were to happen to me, it would leave [Jesse] basically an orphan as far as the law is concerned…All that would be in spite of my husband Tony being there from Day One and being just as much a parent as I am.”

On Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that Amendment 3, Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional as a result of a federal lawsuit seeking marriage equality, allowing gay couples to wed in the state immediately. But upon the request from the state, the U.S. Supreme Court placed a stay on the weddings on Jan. 9 pending appeal of the lawsuit. The next day, Herbert said the state wouldn’t recognize the same-sex marriages of couples that married in Utah before the stay was in place.

Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would later announce the marriages would be recognized for federal purposes, as it stands now the couples will have to wait for the outcome of the federal lawsuit — which could take years — to find out whether the state will recognize their marriage.

Barazza and Milner are one of four couples seeking recognition of their marriage from Utah after having wed in the 18 days when same-sex marriages were legal there. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in state court by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Utah and the Salt Lake City-based firm Strindberg & Scholnick, LLC.

The 32-page complaint alleges Herbert’s decision not to recognize the marriages violates both the due process clause under Utah’s  constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, it seeks relief under declaratory judgment and Rule 65B, which allows individuals in Utah to seek extraordinary relief against wrongful use of public authority.

“By placing recognition of their marriages ‘on hold,’ the State of Utah has placed the legal status of plaintiffs’ families, including their children, in legal limbo and created uncertainty as to their rights and status in virtually all areas of their lives,” the complaint states.

Joshua Block, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT project, said the goal of the lawsuit is to achieve a result similar to what the California Supreme Court decided after state voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8.

“What happened in Prop 8 is they said if you got married before the amendment went into effect, the marriages are valid and continue to be recognized in California, but no new marriages could happen,” Block said.

In addition to Barazza and Milner, the other plaintiff couples in the lawsuit are Marine Gomberg and Elenor Heyborne of Salt Lake City; JoNell Evans and Stacia Ireland of West Valley, Utah; and Donald Johnson and Fritz Schultz of Sandy, Utah.

After being together for nine years, Gomberg, 29, told the Blade she and Heyborne, 28, wanted to wed immediately on Dec. 20 upon learning that a court has instituted marriage equality in Utah. The couple held a commitment ceremony in 2009, but weren’t legally married until last month.

“There was a huge sense of immediacy because this was something we waited so long for, and we didn’t know how long the window would be,” Gomberg said.

Soon after, Heyborne, a state employee who works in communications, learned that Utah would no longer recognize their union and she sent a text message to Gomberg, who also works in communications, to inform her of the news.

“Obviously, this put all our hopes and dreams to have a kid on hold because the state of Utah doesn’t recognize same-sex adoption, so we would have to go out of state, establish residency somewhere, and then come back here,” Heyborne said. “When we got married, we kind of thought that that was a hoop we would not have to jump through now that we were legally married.”

Marty Carpenter, a Herbert spokesperson, said the governor is standing by his decision not to recognize the same-sex marriages performed in Utah.

“Gov. Herbert has said throughout this process that his responsibility is to follow the law,” Carpenter said. “That is exactly what the administration is doing and we respect the rights of those who disagree to take their grievances before a judge.”

Although state officials announced they’re not recognizing the marriage, the Utah Tax Commission issued guidance last week saying that same-sex couples married in 2013 can be recognized as such for tax purposes for that year if they filed federal returns as married.

Block said the new lawsuit is completely independent of the existing marriage equality lawsuit, known as Kitchen v. Herbert, which brought the same-sex marriages to the state and is pending before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the event that court or the U.S. Supreme Court rules that state bans on same-sex marriages like Amendment 3 are constitutional, Block said the outcome wouldn’t affect gay couples married in Utah if the new lawsuit succeeds because “they had vested rights that  can’t be taken away just like if Prop 8 had been upheld as constitutional.”

“But then, even if Kitchen is affirmed on appeal,” Block added, “and the marriage amendments need to stop being enforced again, that doesn’t really solve the problem of legal implications of what happens over the course of people’s lives of the course of this year and next year until the Kitchen litigation comes to an end.”

Block was unable to predict the length of time it would take for the new lawsuit to be resolved, but noted the case was filed before state district court and said he expected requests soon for summary judgment before the Utah Supreme Court.

Each of the plaintiff couples that spoke to the Blade was optimistic about the lawsuit moving forward. Barazza said he’s “really confident” the lawsuit will succeed based on growing public support for marriage equality.

“Public opinion is going in that direction, and I think the courts are recognizing that,” Barazza said. “Also, just with the fundamental fairness and equality as being recognized under the Constitution, I think that is where the country’s headed.”

Block was also optimistic because he said Utah has “a long history” of protecting vested rights under its constitution, such as when the court rebuffed the state legislature’s attempt to change a person’s right to sue under tort law.

“That’s very similar to your legal obligations and rights that come with a marriage license and recognition,” Block said. “Once you got married, you accrued vested rights and all the legal implications of that marriage. And under those principles, I think this right is more important than all the other vested rights that have been protected.”


Gay service members to receive full severance pay

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A federal court on Monday approved a settlement that will allow gay service members discharged because of their homosexuality to receive full severance pay.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that it reached the roughly $2.4 million agreement on behalf of more than 180 service members who signed onto a class action lawsuit who received only 50 percent of their separation pay when the military discharged them. This policy took effect in 1991, two years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” took effect.

The settlement the ACLU reached with the Pentagon only applies to those discharged before Nov. 10, 2004, because of the statute of limitations.

“It makes no sense to continue to penalize service members who were discharged under a discriminatory statute that has already been repealed,” Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, said. “The amount of the pay owed to these veterans is small by military standards, but is hugely significant in acknowledging their service to their country.”

The ACLU in 2010 challenged the policy on behalf of former Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Collins who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006 after a co-worker at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico saw him kiss his boyfriend in their car while they were off-base.

“This means so much to those of us who dedicated ourselves to the military, only to be forced out against our will for being who we are,” Collins said. “We gave all we had to our country, and just wanted the same dignity and respect for our service as any other veterans.”

“There was absolutely no need to subject these service members to a double dose of discrimination by removing them from the armed forces in the first place, and then denying them this small benefit to ease the transition to civilian life,” Laura Schauer Ives, managing attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico, added. “This decision represents a long-delayed justice to these veterans.”

The ACLU announced the settlement hours after President Obama nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — his selection sparked controversy among some advocates who have criticized him for his anti-LGBT voting record on Capitol Hill and for describing James Hormel as “openly, aggressively gay” during a 1998 newspaper interview about his nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hagel apologized for his comments.

Former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos are among the military commanders who have said the integration of openly gay men and lesbians into the armed forces has gone smoothly since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became official in September 2011.

Problems, however, remain.

Transgender servicemembers remain unable to openly serve, while the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the military from providing on-base housing, survivor and other spousal benefits to same-sex partners of gay soldiers.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in October 2011 filed a federal lawsuit against DOMA on behalf of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a lesbian guardsman with terminal breast cancer who led the Pledge of Allegiance at New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan’s inauguration on Jan. 3, and other gay service members and veterans. The Southern Poverty Law Center last February filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs on behalf of a disabled veteran from California whose application for spousal benefits for her wife whom she legally married outside Los Angeles before voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8 that banned nuptials for gays and lesbians.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in cases challenging both Prop 8 and DOMA at the end of March.

The Obama administration announced in February 2011 it would no longer defend DOMA, but House Republicans continue to back it.


Medicare asked to review ban on gender reassignment surgery

transgender, caduceus, medicare, gay news, Washington Blade, health

LGBT groups are askng Medicare to lift its ban on gender reassignment surgery. (Image public domain)

Medicare is being asked to review a policy that prohibits transgender people from receiving coverage for gender reassignment surgery.

Last week, a quartet of LGBT rights groups — the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and civil rights attorney Mary Lou Boelcke — filed an administrative challenge to eliminate Medicare’s ban on coverage for the procedure.

Joshua Block, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Project, said the challenge was filed because a policy change is “overdue.”

“It is completely out of line with any scientific or medical evidence or standards of practice,” Block said. “There are people out there who are in desperate need of the surgery. Their doctors have told them they need the surgery. And they’re being told it’s not covered because it was allegedly experimental 30 years ago.”

The challenge, sent on March 26, was filed on behalf of Denee Mallon, a transgender woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A Medicare recipient who’s age 73, Mallon was recommended to have gender reassignment surgery by doctors to treat her gender dysphoria.

A veteran of the U.S Army, Mallon joined the the service when she was 17 and worked as a forensics investigator for a city police department. She was later diagnosed with gender identity disorder.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she’s “very excited” about the challenge.

“Americans, in general, are really tired of health care decisions being made by legislators and bureaucrats and insurance companies,” Keisling said. “Most of us believe that health care decisions should be made by patients and doctors, and the medical community is pretty unified. This is a legitimately necessary surgery.”

Keisling said NCTE isn’t directly involved in the challenge because it involves lawyers representing clients, and the organization doesn’t provide those legal services.

The ban, which is codified as National Coverage Determination 140.3, was put in place in 1981 during the Reagan administration. Keisling said the ban was put in place as a result of the stigma on transgender people at the time and lobbying from insurance groups.

The National Coverage Determination from 1981 spells out why transgender people are unable to receive this coverage under Medicare.

“Transsexual surgery for sex reassignment of transsexuals is controversial,” the regulation states. “Because of the lack of well controlled, long term studies of the safety and effectiveness of the surgical procedures and attendant therapies for transsexualism, the treatment is considered experimental. Moreover, there is a high rate of serious complications for these surgical procedures. For these reasons, transsexual surgery is not covered.”

Despite this policy, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Society support gender reassignment surgery for transgender people.

Block said the challenge has been filed at this time — more than 30 years after the ban was put in place — because “each year that goes by, it becomes ever more clear how unfounded the categorical sweeping ban is.”

“Each year that goes by, there’s more and more evidence that just reaffirms the widely accepted view that these surgeries are safe, medically necessary and effective to treat a serious medical condition,” Block said.

Now that the challenge has been filed, the Department Appeals Board of the Department of Health & Human Services is set to review the ban, determine if it’s reasonable under current standards of care and make a decision on whether to reverse it. It’s estimated the process could take months to resolve.

It’s unclear how many transgender people the change would affect. A recent study from the Williams Institute found that one-third of one percent of Americans identify as transgender, and an estimated 48 million people receive coverage under Medicare. Given those numbers, about 144,000 transgender people are receiving coverage under Medicare.

In an apparently separate development last week, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services included a statement on its website asking for public comment because it would reconsider the ban. But the notice was removed on Friday from the agency’s website after conservative media, such as Drudge Report, took note of it.

Brian Cook, a CMS spokesperson, told the Blade solicitation for public comment was removed as a result of the legal challenge from LGBT groups coming to light.

“An administrative challenge to our 1981 Medicare national coverage determination concerning sex reassignment surgery was just filed,” Cook said. “This administrative challenge is being considered and working its way through the proper administrative channels. In light of the challenge, we are no longer re-opening the national coverage determination for reconsideration.”

Although the challenge was filed last week, LGBT groups didn’t notify the press about it until Monday. Block said the notice that went up on the Medicare website — and its subsequent removal — prompted the news statement.

“I think there were a lot of questions — particularly by members of the transgender community — about the status of NCD and what this administrative challenge was, and so we thought it was important to give affirmative clarification about what this challenge is and how it’s separate from the CMS process,” Block said.