GAO United States
General Accounting Office
Washington, D.C. 20548
Office of the General Counsel
January 31, 1997
The Honorable Henry J. Hyde
Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary
House of Representatives
Dear Mr. Chairman:
The Defense of Marriage Act,1
which became law on September 21 of last year, defines
“marriage” as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife”;
similarly it defines “spouse” as referring “only to a person of the opposite sex who is a
husband or a wife.” Because the Act makes both definitions apply “[i]n determining the
meaning of any Act of Congress,” it potentially affects the interpretation of a wide variety
of federal laws in which marital status is a factor.
In connection with the enactment of the Defense of Marriage Act, you asked us, in your
September 5, 1996, letter, to identify federal laws in which benefits, rights, and privileges
are contingent on marital status. Your staff agreed that we should identify more generally
all those laws in the United States Code in which marital status is a factor, even though
some of these laws may not directly create benefits, rights, or privileges.
To find laws that meet these criteria, we conducted searches for various words or word
stems (“marr,” “spouse,” “widow,” etc.), chosen to elicit marital status, in several electronic
databases that contain the text of federal laws. From the collection of laws in the United
States Code that we found through those searches, we eliminated (1) laws that included
one or more of our search terms but that were not relevant to your request2
and (2) as
agreed with your staff, any laws enacted after the Defense of Marriage Act. The result is a
Public Law 104-199, 110 Stat. 2419.
For example, our search for the word stem “marr,” designed to capture words such as
“marriage” and “marry,” also produced references to laws mentioning bone marrow
transplants, the city of Marrakesh, and proper names containing the letters “marr.”
GAO/OGC-97-16 Defense of Marriage Act
collection of 1049 federal laws classified to the United States Code in which marital status
is a factor.
This collection of laws is as complete and representative as can be produced by a global
electronic search of the kind we conducted, but such a search has several limitations. Most
significantly, it cannot capture every individual law in the United States Code in which
marital status figures. However, we believe that the probability is high that it has
identified those programs in the Code in which marital status is a factor.
Because of the inherent limitations of any computer search3
and the many ways in which
the laws in the United States Code may have dealt with marital status, the only way to
create an exhaustive list of laws in the Code implicating marital status would be to read
and analyze the Code in its entirety. We believe that such an effort would not generate
substantially more useful information than we have provided here.
A second caveat concerning our data is that they include only laws classified to the United
States Code. As you know, the Code is a compendium of “general and permanent” laws.
Although appropriations and annual authorizations, for example, might contain references
to marital status, they are typically in effect for a single year, and therefore do not appear
in the Code.
Finally, no conclusions can be drawn, from our identification of a law as one in which
marital status is a factor, concerning the effect of the law on married people versus single
people. A particular law may create either advantages or disadvantages for those who are
married, or may apply to both married and single people. For example, those who are
unmarried fare better than their married counterparts under the so-called marriage penalty
provisions of the tax laws, while married couples enjoy estate tax benefits not available to
the unmarried. Other laws apply both to married and single people by virtue of terms like
“survivors,” “relatives,” family,” and “household.”
The raw data produced by our searches were in a form that made them unwieldy and
difficult to use. One reason for this is the sheer number of individual laws that we
identified. Also, we conducted multiple searches in several databases, resulting in several
separate lists in varying formats. Finally, the laws on the lists were organized as they are
in the United States Code; for a reader attempting to understand what kinds of laws make
One such limitation results from the use of statutory definitions. Our search for
occurrences of “spouse” would find a law defining “relative,” for purposes of a program, as
including a spouse. It would not find the laws in that program that, by referring to
“relative,” apply to a spouse. A search for “relative” does not solve this problem. That
word is used commonly in senses unrelated to marital status (as are other terms such as
“single”). A computer cannot distinguish between these senses; a lawyer would have to
examine each occurrence of “relative” to determine whether it refers to marital status.
Page 2 GAO/OGC-97-16 Defense of Marriage Act
marital status a factor, that organization is not consistently helpful. Some of the Code’s 50
titles contain laws on seemingly unrelated subjects. Title 42, under the broad designation
“The Public Health and Welfare,” includes laws ranging from Social Security to nuclear
waste disposal to civil rights and privacy protection. Conversely, closely parallel
provisions may appear in different titles: benefits for most federal civil servants are in
Title 5, Government Organization and Employees, but similar provisions for Foreign
Service officers are in Title 22, Foreign Relations and Intercourse.
To give readers a sense of the kinds of federal laws in which marital status is a factor, we
classified the laws on the list into the following 13 categories4
Social Security and Related Programs, Housing, and Food Stamps
Federal Civilian and Military Service Benefits
Employment Benefits and Related Laws
Immigration, Naturalization, and Aliens
Trade, Commerce, and Intellectual Property
Financial Disclosure and Conflict of Interest
Crimes and Family Violence
Loans, Guarantees, and Payments in Agriculture
Federal Natural Resources and Related Laws
While we believe this classification scheme is useful for organizing the hundreds of
statutes on the list, and for representing the range of federal programs and activities in
which the law makes marital status relevant, it should not be regarded as definitive. Other
ways of categorizing these laws would be equally valid. Moreover, the categories we use
are not mutually exclusive: many laws could arguably be in a different category. A
general description of each category and a few examples of the laws it contains are in
enclosure I. The full lists of statutes in each category are in enclosure II.
As arranged with your staff, unless you announce its contents earlier, we plan no further
distribution of this letter for 7 days after its issue date. At that time, we will make copies
available on request.
If you have any questions, please call me at (202) 512-8203 or Susan Poling, Assistant
General Counsel, at (202) 512-2667.
The order of the categories is not significant, except that the first four are those in which
marital status is most pervasive, and are the largest.
Page 3 GAO/OGC-97-16 Defense of Marriage Act
Barry R. Bedrick
Associate General Counsel
Enclosures – 2
Page 4 GAO/OGC-97-16 Defense of Marriage Act
Categories of Laws Involving Marital Status
CATEGORY 1—SOCIAL SECURITY AND RELATED PROGRAMS, HOUSING, AND FOOD STAMPS
This category includes the major federal health and welfare programs, particularly those
considered entitlements, such as Social Security retirement and disability benefits, food stamps,
welfare, and Medicare and Medicaid.1
Most of these laws are found in Title 42 of the United
States Code, The Public Health and Welfare; food stamp legislation is in Title 7, Agriculture.
In many of these programs, recognition of the marital relationship is integral to the design of the
program. For example, the law establishing the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance
(OASDI) program (Social Security) is written in terms of the rights of husbands and wives, and
widows and widowers. Once the law sets forth the basic right of an individual participant to
retirement benefits, it prescribes in great detail the corresponding rights of the current or former
spouse. Whether one is eligible for Social Security payments, and if so how much one receives,
are both dependent on marital status. This is reflected in the provisions for what happens upon
the death of a beneficiary: if certain conditions are met, then a spouse or a divorced spouse (as
well as a widow or widower) has a right to payments based on the marriage, rather than on his or
her own earnings.
The part of the Social Security Act that governs the OASDI program is unusual in that, unlike
many other laws we have identified, it defines the terms “husband” and “wife.” It does so in
terms of state law: a person is the wife or husband of an insured individual for purposes of
OASDI if “the courts of the State [of domicile] … would find that such applicant and such
insured individual were validly married …” or, if not, that under the state’s laws of intestate
succession, the person would have the same status with respect to the individual’s property as a
wife or husband, widow or widower. Those 65 or older who are eligible for Social Security
retirement benefits, or who have received Social Security disability benefits for at least 2 years,
are also eligible for benefits under Medicare.
The Social Security Act also authorizes the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, for the
needy aged, blind, and disabled. Under SSI, both the level of income to determine eligibility and
the level of benefits for those who are eligible differ, depending whether the applicant has an
eligible spouse or not. SSI defines “eligible spouse” as an aged, blind, or disabled individual
who is the husband or wife of another aged, blind, or disabled individual. The SSI law goes on
The recently enacted welfare reform bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act of 1996, greatly affected some of the provisions in this category, but the
changes are not generally effective until July 1997. Where both the old and new provisions
appear in the United States Code, we have included both—the ones in effect until July 1997 and
the ones that take effect thereafter—in Enclosure II.
Interfaith Wedding Ceremony Ideas
These days, it’s becoming more and more common for couples of different religious backgrounds to get married. Many religions have embraced this fact– in two of the four major Jewish sects, interfaith marriages are regularly performed, most Protestant clergy are willing to officiant interfaith marriages, and more and more Catholic priests, Conservative Judaism rabbis, and Islamic leaders are conducting interfaith ceremonies. Ask other interfaith couples in your area for recommendations if you’re having a hard time finding someone yourself. Or, you could have your wedding performed by a non-religious officiant. You will still have the opportunity to incorporate religion into your ceremony if you do this, but it will eliminate the hassle of finding a religious officiant who’s views about interfaith marriage are the same as yours.
It may not be easy pulling off an interfaith ceremony. Your relatives may be upset that you are straying from tradition and even you and your fiance may have some different ideas about how the ceremony should be run and which traditions and rituals should be part of the ceremony. You will need to take a lot of time to consider exactly what marrying someone of a different faith means to you and how you will handle your differences on the wedding day and beyond. With some compromising and understanding though, we’re sure you’re interfaith wedding will go on without a hitch.
Since there is no traditional interfaith ceremony format, we can not recommend one that you should follow, but below you will find some tips for how to incorporate two religions into your ceremony.
Involving Both Families– Chances are, if anyone is upset about you having an interfaith marriage it’s the older generation– your parents and grandparents. The best thing you can do to help them come to terms with your decision and understand it is to have both families participate in the ceremony. Unity candles are a wonderful idea to involve both parents and in this case, the candle lighting will have extra symbolism as you are not only joining your two families, but also your two faiths. At many interfaith marriages involving Christian and Jewish grooms and brides you will notice that the couple is taking a cue from the Jewish religion and having both parents walk the bride and groom down the aisle. This is sure to make both sets of parents feel special on the big day.
Neutral Ground– It’s important for many couples and their families to have a completely neutral ceremony. Many officiants steer clear of using non-inclusive language and avoid using mentions of things unique to one religion (for example, mentions of Israel, Jesus as a savior, etc.) and instead focus on God’s love and the theme of unity and togetherness. In general, we’d advise against having the ceremony in a place of worship unless it is special to both the bride and groom.
Music and Readings– Incorporate music and readings from both your faiths into the ceremony or you can have faith neutral readings and music. We have several suggestions for readings as well as tips for readers weddings in our ceremony section.
Programs– Wedding programs are almost a necessity at an interfaith wedding if you will be incorporating aspects of two faiths into your wedding. A good program will explain the meaning and origin behind any religious rituals that take place at the wedding, that way, none of the guests will be confused about what is going on (your guests may not have attended a wedding outside of their faith group).
Having two officiants– Many interfaith couples are now deciding to have two officiants present at their wedding ceremonies, one from each religion. By having two officiants, you’ll be making everyone more comfortable, plus two heads are always better than one and two officiants can give you more ideas about conducting and interfaith ceremony than just one.
About the author:
Heather Greene is the head writer for the wedding planning site, Wedding Wonderful located at www.weddingwonderful.com. This article originally appeared on Wedding Wonderful.…