Carolinas’ military families now front and center in same-sex marriage fight

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comApril 17, 2014 

Supporters of same-sex marriage in the Carolinas opened a new legal front Thursday – highlighting the impact of the states’ marriage bans on military couples.

The advocacy groups Equality NC and South Carolina Equality have filed a legal argument with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of same-sex military couples and their children. They were filed as a friend of the court brief in a Virginia case.

While the federal government and armed forces recognize those unions, marriage laws in the Carolinas continue to compromise benefits, parental rights and other family issues for military families, the groups argue.

“In Fort Bragg, we have the second-largest military installation in the world, and we have one of the largest veteran populations in the country. I would argue that there is no state where this is a more important conversation to have,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, which bills itself as the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.

On base, same-sex military marriages receive full recognition and benefits. Off base, and in military towns such as Fayetteville and Jacksonville, Columbia and Charleston those unions lose legal standing.

That could soon change. In February, a federal judge threw out Virginia’s law banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit hears an appeal of that ruling May 13. If the judges allow the Virginia ruling to stand, they could also strike down similar marriage laws in the other states they oversee, including the Carolinas.

Both states limit marriage to a man and a woman. North Carolina voters added a constitutional ban in 2012, the last state to do so.

State Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican who is an outspoken supporter of traditional marriage and a former Marine, declined comment Thursday, saying he first wants to read the groups’ filing. In the past, he has said the U.S. Supreme Court wants states to define marriage.

The Carolinas are home to scores of military installations and tens of thousands of active and retired military personnel. In recent days, challengers to North Carolina’s marriage laws have moved military couples to the front lines of their fights.

When the ACLU of North Carolina and other groups expanded their legal challenge in federal court in Greensboro, they included a decorated Desert Storm veteran from Hickory whose spouse and child can’t receive her veterans’ benefits.

Thursday’s brief, written by attorney (and Chapel Hill Mayor) Mark Kleinschmidt, highlights how North Carolina’s marriage laws affect two military families.

Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack of Sanford is serving in Afghanistan, leaving her spouse, Ashley Broadway-Mack, and their two children to navigate the conflicting military and civilian rules governing their family. North Carolina only allows one member of a same-sex couple to adopt. In this family, that’s Mack, which leaves her spouse and children vulnerable when parental decisions are required and Mack is deployed, Sgro said.

Meanwhile, Tracy Johnson of Raeford, whose spouse, Donna, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan more than a year ago, can’t collect survivor benefits. That’s because the federal government defers to the resident’s state in defining eligible family members.

Sgro calls that “a moral travesty.”

“It’s a core issue of humanity: If your spouse is killed during action, you should be eligible for their benefits,” he said. “The U.S. armed forces recognize that our men and women in uniform have same-sex spouses …

“North Carolina thinks it’s better than that.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095

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