A Salinas couple takes a new tack in their fight for the right to marry.
Monterey County Weekly (CA)
When Lori Long and Mark Contreras met on match.com in 2015, she was skeptical about a lavish first date. Coffee seemed like the safe bet – low stakes and brief.
But Contreras could tell there was a connection. "I already know I want to spend time with you, and I want to take you to dinner," Long remembers him saying. So they went big, with dinner at Tarpy's Roadhouse. Long's bubbly, positive approach to life aligned with Contreras' more subdued, yet similarly positive attitude. They fell in love. And on Christmas of 2016, about a year after their first date, he proposed.
They began daydreaming about their wedding – rings, flowers, a venue (probably Tarpy's). But then their wedding planning was interrupted by an unpleasant bureaucratic catch. Long learned that if she, as an adult with a disability she's had since childhood, marries a non-disabled adult, she will lose her monthly $1,224/month from Social Security Disability Insurance. It's money that Long requires for medical care – while she works about 15 hours a week at Home Goods and she loves her job there, her body simply cannot tolerate 40 hours on the floor. In theory, she could get on Contreras' insurance plan offered through his employer, but that would eat up 30 to 40 percent of their income.
And besides, the federal government long ago determined that people like Long – who was born with ankylosing spondylitis which causes fractures in her spine, leading to spinal deformity, pain and surgery after surgery – are entitled to a federal benefit to support their care.
What the federal government did not anticipate when writing these provisions in 1956 was an era in which people with disabilities might live independently and have full lives, with jobs, romantic partners and as parents. It's well past time Social Security catches up.
At Long and Contreras' insistence, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, introduced legislation to correct for this Social Security exclusion. More than 1.1 million Americans receive SSDI benefits, and they keep them into adulthood if they marry someone else who is disabled – but lose them if they marry someone who is not.
Since the Marriage Equality for Disabled Adults Act was introduced in January, it has languished in Congress. So Long and Contreras are trying something new.
On Nov. 17, represented by the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Long filed an administrative complaint with the Social Security Administration. (SSA did not respond to a request for comment.) The complaint quotes from scripture, seeking relief based on the U.S.Constitution and also the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 1993 to protect religious freedom.
"Long has a sincere religious belief that in marriage, two people become one flesh, achieving perfect unity with one another as described in Genesis 2:24," it reads. "It means saying goodbye to one's single life and moving forward together in faith as one… Long feels that her religious practice is incomplete because she is not able to engage in the sacrament of marriage."
Long and Contreras attend services every Sunday at Madonna del Sasso in Salinas. She has long served as a Sunday School teacher and leader of youth ministry, and worries that she is modeling improper behavior by living unmarried with a partner. She and Contreras have considered adopting a child, but won't proceed before marriage.
"This is not just a story about a Christian woman who wants to get married, but a really important American value, religious freedom," says Ayesha Elaine Lewis, staff attorney for DREDF. "This is an issue that has been important to the disability community for a long time."
Lewis hopes Social Security moves quickly to make the change administratively, or that the complaint puts pressure on Congress to act – either way, she is hoping for progress.
But it's impossible to read the complaint and not see the makings of a potential Supreme Court case. And the current court has shown a strong leaning to protect religious freedom.
Long certainly hopes it does not come to that. She is not a public person, and has never wanted to be the face of a movement. She just wants to get married, and to participate in a special prayer at church.