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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 13 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 28
City of Seattle files brief against DOMA
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City of Seattle files brief against DOMA

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'Today, this city joins a number of other cities, counties, and employers in filing an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit challenging DOMA,' Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced at a July 10 press conference on the steps of City Hall.

The city of Seattle decided to intervene in Golinski v. OPM, now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, because 'DOMA is bad law,' Holmes added.

'We are required by federal law to tax employees in same-sex relationships for the value of the health insurance we provide, while opposite-sex couples do not pay tax on those benefits,' Holmes said, explaining the burden that the Defense of Marriage Act imposes on city employees.

'The city also has to pay payroll taxes on those benefits. DOMA forces the city to investigate the sex of our employees' partners.'

According to the city clerk's office, some 150 Seattle city employees get health coverage for their same-sex partners, at an annual payroll cost to the city of about $83,000.

'We want to treat the health insurance we provide to same-sex domestic partners and families just like we do for opposite-sex married people, so that we can free up more money to put to other uses,' Holmes said.

'But we've also signed on to the brief for the simple reason that we believe government should treat everyone the same.'

Holmes was joined at the press conference by Mayor Mike McGinn, City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, and city employee and Gay activist Ken Molsberry.

In brief speeches, the mayor and Rasmussen expressed complete support for the brief challenging DOMA.

'No matter what it's called, DOMA is an odious law,' Rasmussen said. 'It is a stain on the history of the United States.'

'DOMA is an unconstitutional and discriminatory law,' McGinn said. 'I'm pleased that the city is standing together against [it].'

McGinn also recalled a letter he received from Molsberry a year ago, detailing the harm done by DOMA to city employees with same-sex partners.

'Depending on where he is,' McGinn said of Molsberry, 'he's married. But here, he's not.'

Molsberry spoke movingly about his two marriages to his partner, Ken Vincent. The couple was first married in 2004 in San Francisco after then-mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

'Then we were forcibly divorced by the California Supreme Court,' he said, his voice breaking with emotion. The court ruled that same-sex couples could not marry until it had ruled on the constitutional issues involved.

Molsberry and Vincent were legally married in California in 2008, during the brief period after the California Supreme Court decided for marriage equality and before Prop 8 revoked equal marriage rights.

'I'm grateful my employer [the city] is adding its voice to the court challenge to DOMA,' Molsberry concluded.

After the press conference, Molsberry explained to SGN that he choked up during his speech 'because my relationship with this guy is the most important thing in my life.'

'We sat overnight in a rainstorm to wait to get married [in 2004]. We were soaked to the skin,' Vincent interjected. 'We didn't care, we were just so happy to be married. And then for someone to come and say, 'That's invalid, that means nothing, that's nullified' - I don't know what I can compare that to &'

Holmes told SGN he had been working on the issue for almost two years, since the city had asked him for advice on how to handle a case involving retiree benefits.

'We had someone who was in SERS [the Seattle Employee Retirement System],' Holmes explained. 'They'd been in a domestic partnership and now that was in dissolution. So the question was how do we untangle their retirement benefits. If they'd been married it would have been very straightforward, but as domestic partners it's very complicated.'

Holmes turned to Lambda Legal for advice, and while working with them on the retirement benefits case, he became convinced that DOMA posed a major obstacle to fairness for both the city and its employees. Holmes then assigned Assistant City Attorney Fritz Wollett to work with Lambda attorneys on a challenge to DOMA.

'Two or three months ago [Lambda] told us the Golinski case was the place to intervene, and we've been working on it ever since' Holmes said. 'We were also in touch with the City Council and the mayor so everyone was on board.'

Wollett told SGN he had been 'in touch with [Lambda] constantly' since getting the assignment from Holmes. He is optimistic that the Ninth Circuit will decide against DOMA, and that the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the decision.

'All the cases decided so far have ruled DOMA unconstitutional,' Wollett noted. 'The First Circuit [in Gill v. OPM] and the Justice Department have asked the Supreme Court to review [DOMA]. I think it will be struck down.'

Equal Rights Washington board member Rod Hearne, who attended the press conference and spoke with SGN afterward, was also optimistic.

'It's fantastic,' he told SGN. 'I'm confident the courts will find DOMA unconstitutional. I'd like to see social justice for Gay and Lesbian couples carried forward by all levels of government.'

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