When Lori Long and Mark Contreras met on match.com in 2015, she was skeptical of a lavish first date. Coffee seemed like the safe bet – low and short stakes.
But Contreras could tell there was a connection. “I already know that I want to hang out with you and I want to take you out to dinner,” Long recalled. So they went big, with dinner at Tarpy’s Roadhouse. Long’s bubbly, positive approach to life aligns with Contreras’ more subdued but equally positive attitude. They fell in love. And on Christmas 2016, about a year after their first date, he proposed.
They started dreaming about their wedding – wedding rings, flowers, a place (probably Tarpy’s). But then their wedding planning was interrupted by an unpleasant bureaucratic problem. Long learned that if she, as an adult with a disability since childhood, marries a non-disabled adult, she will lose her $1,224 a month from Social Security disability insurance. It’s money Long needs for her medical care – while she works around 15 hours a week at Home Goods and loves her job there, her body just can’t tolerate 40 hours on the ground. In theory, she could benefit from the Contreras insurance plan offered by her employer, but it would consume 30-40% of their income.
Additionally, the federal government determined long ago that people like Long — who was born with ankylosing spondylitis which causes spinal fractures, leading to spinal deformity, pain, and surgery after the surgery – are entitled to a federal benefit to support their care.
What the federal government did not foresee when writing these provisions in 1956 was a time when people with disabilities could live independently and have full lives, with jobs, romantic partners and as parents. . It is high time for Social Security to catch up.
At the insistence of Long and Contreras, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, introduced legislation to correct this Social Security exclusion. More than 1.1 million Americans receive SSDI benefits, and they keep them as adults if they marry another disabled person — but lose them if they marry someone who doesn’t.
Since the Marriage Equality for Adults with Disabilities Act was introduced in January, it has languished in Congress. So Long and Contreras try something new.
On November 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 cites scripture, seeking relief based on the US Constitution and also the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 1993 to protect religious freedom. .
“Long holds a sincere religious belief that in marriage, two people become one flesh, achieving perfect unity with each other as described in Genesis 2:24,” it read. “It means saying goodbye to her single life and moving forward together in faith as one…Long feels her religious practice is incomplete because she is unable to engage in the sacrament of marriage.”
Long and Contreras attend services every Sunday at Madonna del Sasso in Salinas. She was a long-time Sunday school teacher and youth ministry leader, and worries about modeling inappropriate behavior by living single with a partner. She and Contreras have considered adopting a child, but will not proceed until the wedding.
“This is not just the story of a Christian woman who wants to get married, but a very important American value, religious freedom,” says DREDF attorney Ayesha Elaine Lewis. “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 the complaint pressures Congress to act — either way, she hopes for progress.
But it is impossible to read the complaint and not see the ingredients of a possible case before the Supreme Court. And the current court has shown a strong tendency to protect religious freedom.
Long certainly hopes it doesn’t come to that. She is not a public figure and never wanted to be the face of a movement. She just wants to get married and participate in a special prayer at church.