IOWA CITY, Iowa- Same sex couples in Iowa won the right to marry with a court victory four years ago. But now many of those couples are watching Supreme Court arguments to see if federal law will change as well.
The arguments over California's ballot initiative ban of same sex marriage wouldn't change anything in Iowa. But the arguments beginning Wednesday on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is another matter. That 1996 law denies federal benefits to same sex couples who are legally wed. And overturning that would make a big change even for same sex couples who can already get married in Iowa and a handful of other states.
When Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig and her spouse Robin Butler travel, they always carry an emergency legal document kit. Inside are signed power of attorney documents and other papers that would allow one partner to make emergency decisions if the other isn't physically able. It's necessary, for them, because outside of Iowa and other states where their same sex marriage is recognized, they aren't considered legally married.
Rettig said aside from the potential legal uncertainty, just the mixture of states that do and don't accept her and Butler as a married couple is confusing.
"In another state, it's a civil union. Then you're a domestic partner. It's very scary for same sex couples to be in no person's land," Rettig said.
Rettig said without a federally recognized marriage, same sex couples can't file joint federal tax returns. The usual federal gift laws, inheritance and social security rules that apply to married couples don't apply to them.
The Rev. Steven Protzman, a Unitarian Universalist Society minister in Iowa City, marries about 50 same sex couples a year. He said while many appreciate the Iowa law that makes their union legal, that enthusiasm is tempered by the federal restrictions.
"It's huge, yeah because the federal system sends a message to them that they are not equal in the eyes of the law," Rev. Portzman said.
Robin Butler is just hopeful her long wait for equal federal, as well as state, treatment is almost over.
"I have faith that it's the right thing and if you look in the constitution legally you can't argue anything but equality. I have faith in that," she said.
But in the meantime Butler and Rettig will pay a little more in taxes this April 15th because they can't use all the legal deductions married couples take for granted. They'll be watching to see if that changes.