Something straight out of a soap opera is unfolding west of Houston along the Gulf Coast. On July 3rd, 2010, Wharton VFD Captain Thomas Araguz III was killed at a commercial egg plant on a mutual aid structure fire. This week we found out that his mother and ex-wife are suing to stop the distribution of his death benefits to his widow. Why? Because she, apparently, was born a he. The widow says that Captain Araguz knew her history at the outset of the marriage and the mom and ex say he didn’t. Whatever; things are always messy when you’re dealing with a hell of a lot of money.
There is a question here that I am not sure anyone has thought out. What happens when a gay-married firefighter (or cop) is killed in the line of duty? There are several layers of death benefits meant to take care of our survivors. You probably have some life insurance on your own, through your state fireman’s association, your union local, your city, or somewhere else close to you. You might fall under the care of some regional philanthropic organization. The big money, the universal coverage, is from the feds. The Public Safety Officer Benefits program from the U.S. Department of Justice talks about eligible survivors, and by that it means spouses, kids, parents, and those designated in wills, in various orders of primacy.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), defining marriage, for the purpose of federal (i.e., national government) law as between a man and a woman. In the past decade several states have legalized same-sex marriage under state law. DoMA says that states are not bound to recognize same-sex marriages from states where that is legal and that the federal government won’t recognize them at all. The DoMA has come under some fire recently and may find itself in front of the Supreme Court before it’s all over with. In the meantime, and I am no lawyer, it seems that PSOB benefits would not go to the husband of a Massachusetts fireman.
Gay marriage has come to several states with increasing rapidity since 2004. I suspect we’ll see it nationwide within 20 years through demographic shifts even without courtroom battles. You see, the younger the population cohort you ask, the greater the support for gay marriage. The last generation’s shocking heterodoxy tends to become this generation’s hard-fought question and the next generation’s ho-hum afterthought. Interracial marriage is probably a close analogue.
So what will happen when a fireman’s husband or a policewoman’s wife is denied death benefits after one of our brothers are sisters lays down in the line of duty? If you live in one of the states that has gay marriage (and I think they all will, eventually) you might start asking your LODD task force or administration to at least be aware that this could be an issue.