Same-sex marriage: Aflac and TSYS offer benefits to couples who show proof of partnership

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJune 29, 2013 

Twenty years into their relationship, Charlie Snipes and his partner, Michael G. Ankerich, decided to tie the knot.

They couldn't marry in their home state of Georgia. So, they flew to New York for the nuptials.

The couple arrived in Brooklyn a few days early to get the marriage license. Then, on Dec. 10, 2011, they stood before an Episcopal priest at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity, dressed in black tuxedos and surrounded by 25 wedding guests.

They exchanged traditional marriage vows, then left the church singing the old Tammy Wynette standard, "Stand By Your Man."

"After 20 years together, we were fairly certain we weren't jumping into anything," said Ankerich, a local author and technical writer consultant at TSYS. "We also had a rather long engagement. Charlie actually proposed on a bridge over the Tiber River in Rome, Italy, five or six years before. When it became legal in New York, we decided to go for it, figuring that by the time it came to Georgia, we'd be too old -- or dead!"

Snipes, 61, and Ankerich, whom the couple would only describe as "younger," are both TSYS employees and members of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. They represent a growing number of same-sex couples who have decided to marry in other states because of a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage in Georgia.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in two 5-4 decisions Wednesday, struck down a federal law that barred same-sex married couples from federal benefits and upheld the legality of such marriages in 13 states.

But the rulings, while hailed by gay-rights activists, did not declare a nationwide right for gays to marry. They also have no immediate impact on Georgia, Alabama and 33 other states where laws and constitutional amendments only allow heterosexuals to marry. New Jersey and New Mexico have no laws either banning or allowing same-sex marriage.

In 2004, 76 percent of Georgia voters approved a state constitutional amendment that reads: "This state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman. Marriages between persons of the same sex are prohibited in this state."

The law further states: "No union between persons of the same sex shall be recognized by this state as entitled to the benefits of marriage."

In 2006, 81 percent of Alabama voters approved a similar amendment, making it unconstitutional for officials in that state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions.

Following Wednesday's ruling, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens issued a statement explaining his interpretation of the court decision.

"Today, the Supreme Court of the United States held 5-4 that Congress violated equal protection when it defined marriage for federal purposes differently from the way the State of New York defined it," the statement said. "I disagree with the Court's decision. But it is important to understand what the decision does and does not mean.

"Today's decision rests on the basic assumption -- with which I strongly agree -- that the power to define marriage is a power traditionally reserved to the States. The decision does not affect existing state definitions of marriage; in fact, it explicitly says that it is limited to marriages recognized by states as lawful. I agree with the Chief Justice that this limitation means what it says. The definition of marriage adopted by Georgia's voters is unaffected by today's decision."

Danielle Patterson, 34, said she and her partner, Stacy Varner, 48, wanted to get married in Alabama, but had a commitment ceremony instead. The event was held last fall at her family's estate in Fort Mitchell, Ala., drawing about 130 guests.

Patterson is director of audience development at the Springer Opera House and Varner is an executive chef. They used their creative skills to make all their own decorations.

"It was beautiful," Patterson said. "My cousin was my matron of honor, my best friend was my maid of honor and my brother gave me away. We had Stacy's family from Pennsylvania and Michigan come down. It was a big event."

Now, the couple, who live in Fortson, Ga., is planning a wedding in New York to observe their second anniversary. Patterson said she knows about three or four other couples that have married out of state and returned to Columbus. And for many, it's a dream come true.

"When it's with the right person, you just know it," she said. "And now that people are more accepting of it, I think people are coming out and doing it more."

Durant Collins, 48, said he and his partner, Slade Estes, 49, have been together 15 years. They flew to New York six months ago for their wedding.

Collins, a computer programmer at Aflac, said the impetus for the ceremony was the same-sex health insurance benefits offered at the company. He said he had to show proof of marriage or domestic partnership to get the benefits. So he and Estes, a local cosmetologist at Smart Styles, began looking for states where they could get married. They didn't want to go to some place like Wyoming, Collins said, so they chose Manhattan, N.Y.

In response to questions from the Ledger-Enquirer, Aflac issued a statement Friday, explaining their insurance benefits policy for same-sex couples. It said: "Aflac has historically provided benefits to anyone with a legal marriage certificate. In keeping with our commitment to embrace and promote diversity, our policy to offer the same benefits to all legally married employees and to domestic partners who have registered their relationships with any state, regardless of orientation, is included in our formal company benefits guide."

The company currently provides benefits to 26 same-sex couples, 15 of whom are in Columbus, the statement said.

TSYS, another large Columbus-based company with operations throughout the world, offers its employees domestic partner benefits throughout the company, spokesman Cyle Mims said Saturday.

The number of employees enrolled or plan details were not available, Mims said.

Collins said he and Estes flew to New York one Friday in December to get the marriage license. The next Monday, they went to the courthouse to get married.

"We were walking around Manhattan with tuxedos on and people asked what we were doing," Collins said. "And when we told them, they were really excited.

"It was just a really upbeat experience for my partner and me," he added. "And there were other gay couples in the courthouse getting married as well."

When Collins and Estes returned to Columbus, they just settled back into their normal lives without much fanfare.

"It really hasn't changed anything for us," Collins said. "But now I have a legal document saying we are married and no one can take that away from us."

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