Lori Long was diagnosed as a child with a rare disease that requires extensive medical treatment, support and services. She receives Social Security, earned for her by her now deceased parents. Medicare and Medicaid provide her health insurance.
Given the millions of beneficiaries and recipients affected by the marriage penalty, it is highly inefficient to require them to assert their religious claims individually in order to gain exemption.
In 2015 she met Mark Contreras. They fell in love, got engaged and began planning for their wedding – only to find that getting married would be a death sentence for Mrs. Long.
The doctors of Mrs. Long have told her it would be life threatening to lose the medical treatments, support and services she receives from Medicare and Medicaid. (Those same comprehensive treatments, support and services are generally not provided by private health insurance and are prohibitively expensive without insurance.)
Social Security law requires that, if Ms. Long and Mr. Contreras marry, her Social Security and Medicare benefits end the month before the date of their marriage. (The only exception is if Mrs. Long were to marry another Social Security beneficiary, which Mr. Contreras is not. Nor would the benefits be reinstated if Mr. Contreras died or if they divorced.)
As heartbreaking as their inability to get married is, it’s also against the law. It violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which prohibits any application of federal law that substantially impairs religious freedom.
No doubt the termination of marital benefits is an overwhelming burden for Mrs. Long, who has been a devout, practicing Christian all her life and believes that marriage is a holy sacrament. She and her fiancé want children, but having children out of wedlock is against their religious beliefs. They attend services where couples are asked to stand and be blessed – and they cannot receive that blessing. In addition, as a Sunday School teacher, vacation Bible school teacher, and youth ministry leader, she believes she must teach her students proper behavior, including marriage.
The only exception that RFRA allows is if the government has an overriding interest and even then the government loses unless there is no other less onerous way to achieve its goal. There is no compelling reason to force Ms. Long – or anyone else – to choose between their religious beliefs and the benefits they otherwise qualify for.
RFRA prohibits the burden on Ms Long’s religious freedom from the possible termination of her Social Security benefits, just as the Supreme Court ruled that withholding unemployment benefits was an unconstitutional burden on Adell Sherbert’s religious freedom. (The Restoration of Religious Freedom Act explicitly reinstates the test for religious freedom set out in Mrs. Sherbert’s decision. The test had been undermined by later decisions.)
In Mrs. Sherbert’s case, the South Carolina Employment Security Commission had rejected her application for unemployment benefits because Mrs. Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist, had refused all positions that required her to work on Saturday, her Sabbath. The bureau had ruled that her desire to keep her Sabbath was not a valid reason for refusing work that had been offered to her.
The South Carolina statute forced Mrs. Sherbert to choose between attending Sabbath services and temporary benefits; the Social Security Act forces Mrs. Long to choose between life, the daily sacrament of marriage, and the possible loss of her life. Tellingly, those burdens far exceed the one the Trump administration deemed sufficient under RFRA to exempt religious organizations from having to fill out a form to escape the requirement to provide birth control coverage as part of the employer-provided health insurance.
Unless contraception conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs, employers are required to include that coverage in the health insurance they provide. If birth control conflicts with an employer’s religion, all the Obama administration required was for the employer to simply submit a form stating that fact. The application automatically relieved employers of the obligation and cost of providing contraceptives. However, in order not to penalize the employees, the written submission ensured that the insurance company providing the health insurance still provided the coverage, but assumed the costs themselves.
The Trump administration relied on RFRA and reversed the requirement that employers submit the form, as the mere filing could make some employers complicit. To be clear, no religious organization was required to provide its employees with insurance that covered birth control. All a religious organization had to do was file a claim once.
If filing paperwork to evade a legal obligation is an undue burden to religious liberty, and being pressured by financial necessity to work on one’s Sabbath is an undue burden, the loss of livelihood benefits due to the religious Ms. Long’s reasoned decision to marry is without doubt an undue burden on her religious freedom within the meaning of RFRA.
Accordingly, Ms. Long, who is represented by the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), has just submitted a written request to the Social Security Administration to comply with the RFRA and allow her to marry without losing her benefits. SSA should provide this relief immediately — and the Biden administration should do much more.
The provision in the law that would cause Ms. Long to lose her benefits if she married is just one of many anti-marriage provisions in the programs that SSA administers. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), also administered by SSA, pays two married recipients 25 percent less than two other recipients who are identical in every way except they simply live together as roommates. The couple’s permitted assets are also 25 percent lower. In addition, SSI recipients can lose life support Medicaid benefits, along with SSI benefits, if they marry people with even very modest incomes or savings. These resources are automatically allocated to the recipients themselves.
Importantly and heartbreakingly, these rules affect not only the religious freedom of those who receive the benefits, but also their chosen partners, their families and their wider communities. These laws mean that Mr. Contreras, who does not receive a penny in benefits, is nevertheless prevented from sharing the union of marriage with the woman he loves.
At the very least, the Biden administration should announce that it is lifting the marriage penalties of Social Security beneficiaries and SSI recipients who declare that they do not marry, despite their religious beliefs, because they would lose benefits.
But the administration must go further. Given the millions of beneficiaries and recipients affected by the marriage penalty, it is highly inefficient to require them to assert their religious claims individually in order to gain exemption. Instead, the administration should start treating all affected as they now treat unmarried individuals.
The Biden administration must immediately announce that adults with disabilities can marry and continue to receive the Social Security benefits their parents earned for them. It should immediately announce that two married SSI recipients will receive the same level of benefits as unmarried recipients. It should immediately announce that two married SSI receivers will have the same higher power limits as unmarried SSI receivers.
By taking these bold steps, the Biden administration will act in defense of marriage and in support of religion. Using RFRA’s authority to overturn marriage penalties is right public policy and policy. It’s pro-marriage, pro-religion, and pro-Social Security.