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The Questions Still Facing Marriage Equality and Health Insurance

Many years of legal battles, legislative efforts and grassroots organizing have led us to this point: the Supreme Court of the United States deciding on marriage for same-sex couples.

In the past two years, since the decision in (U.S. v.) Windsor, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, more than 60 state and federal courts have overturned marriage bans, and granted the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. This new legal landscape has impacted same-sex couples in many ways. And one of the more important tangible benefits to many couples is the ability to add a spouse to an employee health insurance policy.

Just 10 years ago, the only way a lesbian or gay worker could hope to obtain health insurance for a partner through an employer was through “domestic partner benefits.” At that time, only one state permitted same-sex couples to marry, making spousal health benefits an impossibility for most. Even with domestic-partner benefits, some employers required evidence of shared living space, bank accounts, and affidavits attesting to the length and quality of the employee’s relationship. Many people did take advantage of these benefits, even though the coverage was not as much as if they were allowed to marry.

Now, some businesses are quietly eliminating domestic partnership benefits, and requiring lesbian and gay couples to marry if they want spousal health insurance. This is unfortunate for many couples, gay and straight, who either cannot or do not wish to marry. For example, some couples choose not to marry because marriage would affect their eligibility for need-based financial assistance, or perhaps their visa status for immigration purposes, to name just a few practical reasons. Still other couples decline to marry for personal, religious or philosophical reasons.

The movement to win marriage for same-sex couples has never been about making all loving couples get married. Instead, the fight has always been about valuing autonomy and respect for family diversity, including the ability to choose for ourselves whom to love and how to structure our families. Some couples, gay and straight, choose not to marry, regardless of how committed they are to each other and to their children. These families deserve equal respect and societal support.

Many businesses are examining their health insurance policies and best practices. These companies should be encouraged to keep domestic partner health benefits for both gay and non-gay unmarried couples in place, as well as spousal health insurance policies that treat same-sex couples and different-sex couples equally.

Camilla Taylor is marriage project director of Lambda Legal, which fights for equality.

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