The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all states, and that all states must recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in other states. Two years ago, we reported that the Court upheld the right of states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At that time, the federal government recognized same-sex marriages as valid for purposes of federal law based on the “place of celebration” – i.e., the law of the state where the marriage was performed. The Court’s decision two years ago still gave states the option to refuse to grant marriage licenses or recognize other states’ same-sex marriages. With today’s decision, we now have a uniform approach across the country.
The decision was made in response to a group of lawsuits that were consolidated and appealed at the same time, involving a total of 14 same-sex couples and 2 men whose same-sex partners were deceased. The Court specifically mentioned three of the situations at issue: a man who married his dying same-sex partner on a medical transport plane in Massachusetts (where the marriage was legal) but was denied his request to be listed as the surviving spouse on the death certificate in Ohio (where they lived, and where same-sex marriage was not recognized); a same-sex couple in Michigan (which did not recognize same-sex marriage) that was not allowed to adopt their three children together but had to pick which individual was listed as the legal parent; and an Army Reservist who married his same-sex partner in New York (where the marriage was legal) before serving nearly a year in Afghanistan and then returning home to Tennessee which did not recognize the marriage. The Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right of personal liberty that cannot be denied by a state on the basis of whether the couple is same-sex or opposite sex. In addition, the Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, and this applies to same-sex couples just as much as opposite-sex couples (Obergefell v. Hodges, US, June 26, 2015).
Tips: Review your leave policies and benefit plans to make sure that no distinctions are made between same-sex spouses versus opposite-sex spouses. If necessary, you may require employees to provide a copy of a marriage certificate or similar proof of marriage in order to verify the relationship, but you should apply such a requirement uniformly, without reference to whether the spouse is the same sex as the employee. This may be a good opportunity to remind all your employees to update their information in your records regarding beneficiaries for health benefits, 401(k), life insurance, etc.
The decision doesn’t affect the validity of registered domestic partnerships in states that recognize them. Registered domestic partnerships are currently available in California to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples when a member of the opposite-sex couple is over 62; in Oregon to same-sex couples; and in Washington to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples when one of the individuals (regardless of gender) is at least 62.
Keep in mind that California, Oregon, and Washington state laws forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Federal contractors must abide by similar protections. Idaho and Montana don’t have such laws in place, and there is no federal statute forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by private employers. However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is actively pursuing cases based on the theory that treating workers differently who fail to conform to gender stereotypes is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.