What does it mean for the federal government to “recognize” same sex marriage?
As expected, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Saturday that the federal government will now recognize same sex marriages performed in the latest 6 states to get marriage equality. Now, the federal government recognizes (there’s that word again) such marriages performed in all 32 states (and DC) which currently have marriage equality [shown in blue in the map].
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So what does it even mean to say that the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages from these states?
When a same-sex couple gets legally married in a state, that couple is considered “married” under that state’s laws and for state purposes, such as state taxes. But the federal government doesn’t necessarily need to then consider them “married” for federal law and federal purposes, including federal taxes.
For example, under federal law, married couples can file their federal taxes jointly. But the people at the IRS must decide who is a “married” couple that the law applies to. The federal government generally just accepts each state’s definition of “marriage” (though this hasn’t always been the case, see below), but they have to actually take the step of determining how each state is defining it.
So when Wyoming, for example, began issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, the “feds” look at this and say “OK, Wyoming considers these people married, so now we will consider them married.” The federal government’s recognition of Wyoming same-sex marriages means that these couples can now file federal taxes jointly, and are also subject to all other rights and responsibilities for married couples under federal law.
Has the federal government always accepted each state’s definition of marriage?
Actually no. In fact, until June of 2013, the federal government didn’t recognize ANY same-sex marriages, even those legal under state law. Before that, many states had marriage equality, but these couples were not “seen” as married by the federal government because of a law passed in the 90s called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA said the federal government could NOT recognize any same-sex marriages. However, the Supreme Court struck down that law in June 2013, and since then the feds have recognized same-sex marriage in the 32 states where it has become legal.
Related: Marriage Equality Now a Reality for Majority of Americans
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