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Gay marriage -- or else

The rainbow flag symbolizing gay pride hangs on a building in Manhattan in New York City.

Kai Ryssdal: The magic number in New York City this weekend is 784. That's the number of gay and lesbian couples who'll be able to get married on the first day gay marriage is legal in the Empire State. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today he'll officiate the first one. And many thousands more will surely follow. But not everyone's doing it just for love.

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY, Gregory Warner reports.


Gregory Warner: Clay Williams is just in the early stages of wedding planning. He doesn't have a date or a venue yet. He just knows that they'll have two priests -- Episcopal and Buddhist -- and that it will go down somewhere in New York City.

Clay Williams: That's it. And it's gonna be a good party.

Clay proposed to his partner David Groff in December. But if they didn't want to get married? They'd have to, for the least romantic reason: health insurance. They're both covered under a domestic partner policy through Clay's employer. There's a clause in that policy that Clay signed back when he was hired. It says: if their state legalized same-sex marriage, they'd have to marry to keep getting benefits.

Williams: Yes.

Warner: So you looked at that, and you kind of thought, eventually...

Williams: I had no idea! This was more than 10 years ago. Massachusetts, Vermont, all that stuff -- none of it had happened. So at that time it seemed, who knows when this could happen?

Katherine Franke: There's a large number of people in the lesbian and gay community who are shocked and angry that they now have to get married in order to retain their benefits or to get them in the first instance.

Katherine Franke directs the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School.

Franke: Why are those employers in the business of promoting marriage?

Helen Darling: Well, it's about equity.

Helen Darling heads the National Business Group on Health. She says almost all companies require their heterosexual employees to marry to get benefits, so the same standard should apply to gay employees -- if laws permit.

Professor Franke answers that even when states allow it, there are federal or military laws that can penalize same-sex couples.

Franke: So they gotta make a choice. Health benefits or military pension? Health benefits or paying higher federal taxes? It's not simple, easy, across-the-board equality the way that some employers think it might be.

Of course, it's the minority of employers that even offer domestic partner policies. Most employers treat marriage as the only standard for getting your partner insured. So New York's vote to expand the right to marry will mean a lot more couples getting health benefits, not losing them.

In Philadelphia, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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