16 April 2012

Redefining Marriage: Anyone Can Play

I don’t know how I stumbled onto this story out of Minnesota—I know somebody I read sent me there, but I can’t retrace my steps now—but a Federal judge there sent down this absolutely blistering opinion (Radtke v Local #638 Fund, PDF) against a union’s medical fund that decided on its own bizarre interpretation of state law that a man and his wife were not legally married. The Miscellaneous Drivers and Helpers Union Local #638 Health, Welfare, Eye and Dental Fund denied benefits to Christine Radtke, claiming that she was not legally Calvin Radtke’s spouse. In point of fact Calvin Radtke and his wife Christine were legally married under Minnesota law on 10 August 2005, as the fund in question was fully aware, as they were supplied with copies of the documents in question. But the fund decided that the marriage was not valid because Minnesota law explicitly rejects marriage “between persons of the same sex”. Apparently “Lawful marriage may be contracted only between persons of the opposite sex”.

So how on earth does this affect the Radtkes’ marriage? It is a matter of record that Calvin was recognized as male and Christine as female by the state of Minnesota at the time of their marriage. But the fund argued that as Christine was assigned male at the time of her birth, that should be the governing factor, and their marriage was therefore not valid under Minnesota law.

It was on this point that Judge Michael J. Davis waxed sarcastic, explaining the obvious as though trying to simplify matters so that a two-year-old could understand:
Minnesota’s requirements for the capacity to enter into a marriage contract, by their very nature, apply at the time the marriage is entered into. For example, both parties must have “attained the full age of 18 years.” Minn. Stat. § 517.02. Both parties must not be married to anyone else. Minn. Stat. § 517.03, subd. 1(a)(1). To apply these requirements as of some time other than the time of the marriage would be absurd—divorced individuals would be prohibited from marrying, and adults could not marry because they once were children. There is nothing in Minnesota law indicating that the opposite-sex requirement of § 517.01 should be treated differently from the other capacity requirements. Therefore, the opposite-sex requirement must be determined as of the time of the marriage, rather than as of the time of the participants’ births.
For reasons best known to themselves the Fund’s lawyers chose to drag in various irrelevancies concerning same-sex marriage—how it is seen by the Federal government and the state of Texas, for example. As the Radtkes were not claiming benefits on the basis of a “same-sex marriage” none of this had any conceivable relevance, as the Judge Davis correctly noted. The sole question at issue was whether the state of Minnesota recognized Christine Alisen Jensen as female at the time of her marriage—which it clearly did, as legal documents (including her amended birth certificate) showed, and her status as female was accepted by the IRS, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and the Social Security Administration.

The summary of the decision reads in part:
The Plan was unambiguously written to allow all persons who are legal spouses under Minnesota law to be eligible family dependents. The Fund’s role was to ascertain Minnesota law. It was not the Fund’s role to impose its own definitions of gender and marriage upon its participants. In this case, the Fund ignored all evidence of the State of Minnesota’s view of Plaintiff’s sex and marital status. The Fund’s decision was not only wrong, under a de novo review, it was a flagrant violation of its duty under any standard of review.
As if to make clear that their redefinition of marriage was not an honest misunderstanding of Minnesota law but only a cloak behind which they were hiding their prejudices, the union fund chose to rewrite its plan explicitly to exclude transgender spouses from all coverage:
[T]he Plan defines a spouse as a male or female member of a legally recognized marriage between a man and a woman. . . . For purposes of deciding whether a marriage is between a man and a woman, in all cases, the Board will only recognize the anatomical sex of the individual at the time of birth.
Nothing like an honest bigot, I guess. George Wallace would be proud.

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