Same-sex marriage proponents received one of their biggest victories in late August when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that same-sex married couples can, as of Sept. 16, file joint federal tax returns, just as any other married couple. It's the most tangible benefit to marriage so far for gays and lesbians in Louisiana, where same-sex marriage ceremonies as well as civil unions are outlawed by the state constitution. For years now, a couple from Louisiana could travel to a state where same-sex marriages are performed and come home legally married, but there were few tangible benefits to getting hitched — just emotional ones.
The IRS ruling (which came in the wake of the courts striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act) means same-sex couples can enjoy the same federal tax benefits as other married couples. Those benefits are substantial. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew wrote in a statement, "Today's ruling provides certainty and clear, coherent tax-filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide." Clear and coherent — on the federal level, at least. What it means at the state level is murkier, and seems poised to leave Louisiana and some other states open to legal challenges as the ramifications of the new IRS rule become clear.
Same-sex marriage has never been legal in Louisiana. Moreover, in 2004, Louisianans preemptively amended the state constitution to outlaw not only same-sex marriages, but also civil unions. The amendment reads, "No official or court of the state of Louisiana shall recognize any marriage contracted in any other jurisdiction which is not the union of one man and one woman." Tax experts have said that likely means that same-sex couples will not be able to use federal joint tax returns to prepare their state returns in Louisiana, even though state returns here are expressly tied to federal returns. Instead, they will have to prepare three sets of federal returns — one federal joint return and two sets of never-to-be-filed individual federal returns, which will be used to calculate their separate state returns.
In an editorial last week, The Washington Post wrote, "Given that federal taxable income is often used as the starting point for state taxation, non-recognition states will have to provide at least some sort of guidance for their citizens moving forward. If they don't, a regulatory nightmare is bound to follow."
Enter Louisiana. As of last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration had made no policy statement on the issue. Jindal is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage — but he's also a self-professed proponent of attracting businesses to Louisiana and simplifying taxes. If the state Department of Revenue insists on same-sex couples filling out two extra tax forms before they can file state tax returns, it would send a message of inequality to firms looking to relocate in Louisiana — and further complicate state tax law. Unfortunately, the state constitution makes the law clear: an "official" of the state cannot acknowledge same-sex marriages.
The law — and public acceptance — has moved extremely rapidly on this issue. In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Today, 13 states and the District of Columbia perform them. A May Gallup poll showed 53 percent of Americans now support legalizing same-sex marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996. Things are more complicated in Louisiana, where a recent poll showed a majority of Louisiana Democrats opposes same-sex marriage.
Things are just as complicated in New Orleans, easily the state's most liberal city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu remains one of the nation's few big-city Democratic mayors not to sign on to the "Freedom to Marry" campaign in support of same-sex marriage (more than 350 mayors of both parties are on board). The mayor has said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. As lieutenant governor, however, he supported a 2005 bill to relax the state's marriage laws and allow Vegas-style quickie weddings in the French Quarter.
Even as Landrieu demurs, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau is running a targeted LGBT tourism campaign, giving away a New Orleans honeymoon package to one lucky same-sex couple. The irony here is that the campaign runs in the 13 states that do allow same-sex marriage.
A simpler, fairer tax system that results in more governmental red tape? A honeymoon package in a state that doesn't acknowledge — much less respect — same-sex marriages? Only in Louisiana.
Polls consistently show young voters of both parties support same-sex marriage and don't understand why it's such a big deal among their elders. Once again, the courts will have to "fix" what Louisiana has broken.