1,138 Reasons Marriage Is Cool

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Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 879 makes it illegal to threaten certain individuals guarded by the Secret Service, including the President, the Vice President and their families. At first blush, you wouldn't think the statute has anything to do with the war over gay marriage. But consider this: that law makes it a federal crime to threaten the husband of Elizabeth Cheney, one of the Vice President's daughters. But it does not outlaw threats against the lesbian partner of Mary Cheney, his younger daughter. Legally speaking, Mary's partner is not a member of the Vice President's family but, rather, a total stranger to it.

The difference in the marital status of the Cheney daughters has myriad other consequences — Section 879 of Title 18 is just one of the 1,138 federal laws that apply to Americans who are married. Taken together, these statutes offer substantial lucre to anyone who weds. For instance, the law allows Phil to give his wife Liz all the money he wants, tax free — even if the money is part of a divorce settlement. But gays who get gifts from their partners (or exes) must pay taxes on the goods as though the partners were mere acquaintances. This disparity is most searing at the end of life. According to figures from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights-advocacy group, if Jane dies and leaves a 401(k) worth $162,000 to Heather (who makes, say, $30,000 a year), Heather's tax bill will rise from $3,000 to more than $49,000. If Heather were Heath, however, he would pay nothing more.


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What about the much publicized marriage penalty? It's true that well-off husbands and wives who earn roughly equal amounts usually end up paying more than if they had filed separately, as gays must. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, marriage penalties are actually less common than marriage bonuses (which often go to couples with stay-at-home moms). Each year the government grants more than $32 billion in marriage bonuses (compared with the $28 billion it receives in penalties).

There's more. Veterans' spouses can get an array of perks, everything from free medical care to eligibility for interment in a national cemetery. And the Social Security Administration has paid millions in survivor benefits to parents who have lost a spouse. Sometimes the marital advantages marbled throughout the code show up in far-flung places. For example, the law says those who sell land to the government for a national park — as well as their spouses — can live there until they die. A lesbian partner doesn't have that right.

What gay activists won't say is that in some ways it's better to be single. For instance, if a bureaucrat is determining whether you can get Medicaid, he is allowed to consider how much money your spouse makes. A gay man could get Medicaid — or a veteran's pension or a student loan or a crop-support payment — regardless of his partner's income. At the other end of the economic spectrum, the law prohibits Senators' spouses from accepting gifts worth more than $250 a year. But if, say, a Senator left his wife for a man, the new boyfriend could take a Ferrari from a Saudi prince if he wanted to.

It's a mistake to reduce gays' campaign for equal marriage rights to a dollar figure, but marriage has been a partly financial arrangement since it was invented. "Some of the reasons [to marry] are intangible," says Evan Wolfson of the group Freedom to Marry. "But others are tangible, and they all matter."