By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Three lesbian couples facing urgent health issues sued on Wednesday to force North Carolina to acknowledge their same-sex marriages and allow access to insurance, tax and inheritance benefits.
The women said it was important for a U.S. court to take quick action because a spouse in each couple is grappling with poor health or a serious illness, including advanced breast cancer. Each couple was wed in a locality where same-sex marriage is legal, including several states and the District of Columbia.
If the ailing spouse dies before North Carolina recognizes the marriages, the surviving spouse will be denied benefits given to married couples, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greensboro.
Those protections include benefits related to taxes, inheritance, insurance and retirement, the lawsuit said. The couples also worry about whether they will be allowed to stay with a spouse during medical procedures and emergencies, attorneys said.
"Without the legal security that only marriage affords, these families are left vulnerable," said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
The lawsuit is among dozens that have been pursued nationwide since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last June allowed federal tax and other benefits for same-sex couples.
Eight federal judges so far have ruled that states may not treat same-sex couples differently than opposite-sex couples, in cases that are all being appealed.
The ACLU has sought to expand gay-marriage rights in North Carolina, which in 2012 became the last state in the South to add a voter-approved ban on gay marriage to its constitution.
An earlier suit filed by the civil liberties group challenges the ban, as well as North Carolina's prohibition against one member of a same-sex couple adopting the other's children.
A lesbian couple named as plaintiffs in the 2012 case filed a request on Wednesday seeking immediate relief from the courts. They said the ban on "second parent adoptions" has hurt the quality of medical care their son, who has cerebral palsy, can receive because the spouse not legally recognized as his mother cannot put him on her private health insurance plan.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Shumaker)