Gay, Married And In Line At The DMV
In North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court's answer to gay marriage leaves the same questions as before
When Caryn and Chelsea, the subjects of my most recent column in Charlotte magazine, were up in a county clerk’s office in upstate New York applying for a marriage license, they had lots of questions. Chelsea wanted to take Caryn’s last name after they got married. What happens when we get back to North Carolina, which doesn’t recognize gay marriage? What will they do when we bring our marriage certificate from New York to the North Carolina DMV office to change Chelsea’s license? Will the DMV accept the new last name, even though the marriage certificate comes from a marriage North Carolina doesn’t recognize as legal?
The clerk had no idea.
If you subscribe to the idea that all politics is local, then you probably realize something about Wednesday’s takedown of the federal Defense of Marriage Act by the U.S. Supreme Court: It doesn’t change all that much here in North Carolina. The ruling says states can still make up their own rules on marriage. This state not only defined marriage as a one man-one woman union by law, but politicians played to populism by going to voters last year, asking them to approve a constitutional amendment to make the same definition. They did. It was couched as a way to bulletproof the traditional definition of marriage from any judges who might try to declare the law unconstitutional. But two months before the amendment passed, House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) told students at N.C. State that it’d probably be repealed within 20 years. “It’s a generational issue,” he said in March 2012. “The data shows right now that you are a generation away from that issue.” Tillis managed to pull off a rare feat with that statement, turning from a mere sausage or croissant into the equivalent of a political pig-in-a-blanket. He reached across the aisle. To himself.
That statement generated some headlines, but nothing near what we saw with Wednesday’s ruling. This is the funny thing about politics. We get really invested in the president and Congress, but what they do really doesn’t have much to do with the way we live our lives on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis. State laws do. City ordinances do. You might believe in President Obama, but you can’t really write to him when the local zoning board says no to the water slide you wanted to install in your front yard.
That’s evident here. Although the Defense of Marriage Act ruling covers the federal government, it realistically only makes a difference in the states where gay marriage is already legal. Gay rights supporters say this opens the door to takedowns of one man-one woman marriage laws and amendments in states. Opponents can still push for more states to ban it. But for now, America is still a hand-made quilt of nuptial rules instead of the warm and fuzzy blanket that some people want it to become.
So gaps exist. While Caryn and Chelsea could (depending on what the IRS decides) get the chance to list themselves as married on a joint federal tax return, they’ll still have to file as single (and separately) in North Carolina. There’s also the question of federal institutions in states that don’t recognize gay marriage. For example, what rights will gay spouses have at, say, the VA Hospital in Salisbury? Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the military, which in 2011 allowed openly gay men and women to serve, would abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling, but what that means for gay spouses at Fort Bragg still needs to be worked out. Also, insurance laws vary from state to state. Because Caryn’s employer in North Carolina uses an insurance company from Buffalo, it covers Chelsea as her spouse. If the insurance company was based in North Carolina, it wouldn’t.
There is also the other, more ugly side of marriage that all states DO recognize: divorce. Senate Bill 518, which ended up dying in the chamber’s rules committee, was intended to extend the waiting period for a divorce in North Carolina from one to two years. Consider these two disparate paragraphs from WRAL in Raleigh:
"North Carolina has a very high divorce rate – one of the worst – and it's probably because we've been lax in our divorce laws. Made it too easy," said bill sponsor Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba.
North Carolina's divorce rate was 3.8 per 1,000 marriages in 2009, compared with the U.S. rate of 3.4 divorces, according to the most recent Census Bureau statistics. The state ranked 19th nationwide.
But I digress: If you don’t want to be married anymore, and you don’t want to wait a year in North Carolina, then you could just go to Nevada or Guam or any other place where divorce happens more quickly. And when you come back—bam—you’re divorced. That’s it. But let’s say some states didn’t recognize divorces from other states. You could run into the exact opposite of the possible gay marriage tax quirk, where you’d list yourself as single on your 1040, but married on your state tax form.
States can pick and choose to recognize other laws from other states. That’s the case for drivers’ licenses. Imagine if it wasn’t. Imagine all the trips you’d have to make to other states’ DMVs. Imagine the size of the wallet you’d have to carry if you were a traveling salesman.
Sometimes the intent of a law is to make something harder to do so people won’t do it. North Carolina didn’t have a state lottery until 2006, but it was still possible to drive across the border from Charlotte to Fort Mill to play Powerball before then, and if you won, North Carolina would gladly tax your winnings. On the flip side, North Carolina was the first state to outlaw payday lending, but if you need cash now and want to deal with the consequences of outrageous interest rates later, you are more than welcome to head down to South Carolina to get your money. Charlotte is a border town, and so while we technically play by one set of rules, it’s always been possible to play by two.
I could get by without Powerball or cheaper gas or fireworks, but if I went to South Carolina and introduced you to my wife, and some you said, well, we don’t recognize marriages from North Carolina, I’d be upset. And that’s what got me thinking about Caryn and Chelsea when I wrote the column, and again on Wednesday. It’s not a matter of belief. It’s not a matter of rights. Defense of marriage acts didn’t stop people from getting married elsewhere. And except in California, gay marriage isn’t going to start in places that stopped it. What got me thinking was this: a black or white decision from a state legislature or the Supreme Court can leave things looking about as gray as they was before. Unity is tough. Even in marriage. Any kind of marriage.
I’d never even thought about the DMV issue until I talked to Caryn this morning. I checked. Turns out, there is no issue. If you show up at a DMV office in North Carolina with a marriage certificate and a Social Security form, they will change the name on your drivers’ license. It doesn’t matter what state your certificate is from. It doesn’t matter if you’re married to a man or a woman. You’ll get the last name you want.