Married Same-Sex Couples In Arkansas Frustrated By Delays

Jun 18, 2015

Jennifer Rambo (middle) and her wife, Kriston Seaton, (right) posing at a mass wedding reception in Eureka Springs last summer, with their civil rights attorney, Cheryl Maples (left).
Credit Jacqueline Froelich / KUAF

Despite a judge’s ruling last week that same-sex marriages conducted last year in Arkansas must be legally recognized, many of those couples report being frustrated by bureaucratic obstacles so far. 

More than 540 couples were legally married during the second week of May last year, after the state’s constitutional ban on same sex marriage was struck down by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. The issuing of licenses was halted after a stay was ordered by the State Supreme Court while the case was under appeal.

But last week, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen authorized those marriages to be recognized and entitlements to proceed.

Judd Deere, a spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, says the office is evaluating its options regarding an appeal, but for now, "As with any court ruling, we have advised state agencies to follow the order of the court."

Married couples in Arkansas are entitled to more than a thousand benefits, rights and protections, including shared social security, taxes, health coverage, even immigrant visas. But some same-sex couples, like Jennifer Rambo and Karen Seaton, have been turned away while seeking some of those benefits.

"We went into the Social Security Administration office here in Fort Smith," Rambo said, "saw our clerk who unfortunately looked up all the information she could on her computer, went and talked to some others and she came back and told us the sad news that at the moment, they don’t have any information what s-so-ever that they can process our paperwork."

The pair were the first lesbians to secure a marriage license in Arkansas, in the western district of Carroll County in Eureka Springs and have been forced to wait for over a year to start applying for joint benefits. And the name change is just the beginning.

"We have been looking into sperm banks and such to begin adding to our family. We’re really excited to do that and we’ve been kind of holding off on really researching it because most of the banks around here say they have to have a husband and wife," Rambo said.

Couples in Fayetteville, Little Rock, Hot Springs and Conway are also reporting similar barriers.

Social security is federally administered and under the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a part of the Defense of Marriage act in June 2013, the federal government must now recognize same-sex marriages legalized across various states.

Sarah Schultz-Lackey, communications director for the Social Security Administration, Dallas Region, which encompasses the state of Arkansas, said in a statement:

"We are closely following changes in state law and working to update our instructions in this rapidly changing landscape. We are working with the Department of Justice to apply the changes in law to our programs and publish new instructions for processing claims affected by the changes."

LGBT civil rights expert Danielle Weatherby is assistant professor of law at the University of Arkansas and says it's a right that needs to be respected immediately.

"Every day that the SSA as an arm of the federal government does not recognize the same-sex marriages that were legally performed in the state, are now recognized in the state of Arkansas thanks to Judge Griffen's recent ruling, they’re violating the Supreme Court’s precedent set by their 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor."

37 states and Washington DC have also approved such unions.