The Repeal of DOMA: An Economic Boon to Rhode Island

Jul 1, 2013

When Gov. Lincoln Chafee and gay marriage advocates two years touted its economic benefits for Rhode Island they were widely disparaged. Rhode Island Public Radio's political analyst Scott MacKay explains why Chafee and his allies may well be right.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s  5 to 4 decision overturning a crucial part of the federal  Defense of Marriage Act does not apply uniformly across the 50 states. While lawyers on both sides of the issue parse the meaning of the ruling, one  aspect is clear: same sex couples seeking the benefits and clarity of marriage will be better off in one of America’s 12 states that recognize gay unions.

Rhode Island becomes one of those states on August 1, when the same-gender marriage law approved by the General Assembly and signed by Chafee takes effect. Gay marriage advocates for the most part used civil rights and equality arguments to secure  this political victory.

But now that the high court has ruled, the economic impact is beginning to sink in. There are more than 1,100 places in federal   law where a protection or responsibility is based on marital status, according to lawyers for national gay rights organizations.  A few obvious examples: access to social security survivors benefits;  the right to use the federal family medical leave law to care for a spouse; access to  veterans spousal benefits; and the opportunity to sponsor a foreign-born spouse for U.S. citizenship.

This is still a murky area of law. Federal agencies have widely different approaches on which state’s  laws they consider to determine whether a marriage is valid. For example, the IRS and Social Security rely on the laws of the state where a couple lives. But immigration officials use the laws of the state in which the couple was married.

One thing is certain, says Karen Lowey, a New York lawyer who specializes in gay marriage issues, is that the Supreme Court decision does not give gay couples who live in states with no recognition of gay marriage eligibility for federal-based marriage benefits. Lowey’s advice to gay couples seeking full respect and benefits of their marriage is to live in a state with legal protections for same-sex marriages.

The DOMA case that led to the Supreme Court decision was directly related to a marriage-based economic entitlement.  It involved an 84-year old widow who was forced to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate taxes after the death of her female spouse because her marriage was not recognized under federal law. Had she been married to a man, she would have not had to pay that tax.

Rhode Island should quickly seize this decision as an asset to our small state. State economic development officials ought to begin an advertising campaign reminding  gay couples that the Ocean State honors their marriages and that we are a fine place in which to raise a family. We could also hang out a sign saying that our state is a great place to retire for couples that want access to federal benefits and such marriage benefits as spousal  visiting privileges at hospitals.

It may be too early to quantify the economic   upside for our state; surely the DOMA decision will beget more litigation as gay couples rush to the court house to clarify their rights. And it would help if our business community would create more jobs and recruit gay employees as they seek a diverse work force.

Former Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst discovered a notable example of a celebrated gay person who refused to live in Rhode Island when our state did not recognize gay unions. Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright said in 2005 that she lived in Massachusetts while teaching at Brown University because she did not wish to live in a ``place where I do not have full civil rights.’’

How many other Paula Vogels are out there who no longer will have to make that decision?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at