By Sarah Wisor
Same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry and have their marriages recognized nationwide. In a 5-to-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that states are required to license a marriage between two people of the same sex under the Fourteenth Amendment. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). As a result, same-sex couples may now legally marry in all states. This ruling has massive implications, as rights and benefits extended to opposite-sex spouses will be available to same-sex spouses across the United States.
Marriage Equality Prevails
In an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court recognized that same-sex couples were not seeking to devalue the institution of marriage, but instead sought for themselves the respect, rights, and responsibilities that accompany a legal marriage. The Court held that under both the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry.
The Due Process Clause provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Court determined that same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry under this Clause for four reasons:
- the right to make the personal choice of who to marry is inherent in the right of individual autonomy; choices concerning family relationships, whether to have children, and whether to use contraception are protected intimate decisions that extend to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation;
- the right of couples to commit themselves to each other and enjoy intimate association extends to same-sex couples just as it does to opposite-sex couples;
- protecting same-sex marriage safeguards children and families because without the recognition and stability of marriage, children of same-sex couples suffer harm and humiliation as well as material costs because of the stigma attached to “knowing their families are somehow lesser” than families of opposite-sex couples; and
- marriage is a “keystone” of our country’s social order and national community; governmental recognition, rights, benefits and responsibilities depend in many ways on marital status and same-sex couples should not be denied the benefits that accompany marriage.
The Court also ruled that the right of same-sex couples to marry is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The Court admonished that state laws that ban same-sex marriage deny same-sex couples the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples, disparage same-sex couples’ choices, and diminish their personhood. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits such “unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”
Recognition of Marriages Performed in Other States
The Court also ruled that a state may not refuse to recognize the same-sex marriages lawfully performed in another state. The result is that any lawful marriage that has already taken place in the United States, whether same- or opposite-sex, must be recognized in all 50 states.
What This Means for Employers
Multi-state employers that have been dealing with state-specific policies that were dependent on state-law recognition of same-sex marriages may now want to implement a uniform policy that applies to all locations. Here are steps you should consider in light of the legalization of same-sex marriages nationwide:
- FMLA leave: Same-sex spouses will be deemed spouses under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) no matter where the marriage took place or where the employee resides. This means that you need to permit eligible employees to take FMLA leave to care for their same-sex spouse with a serious health condition, for qualifying exigency leave if the spouse is being deployed and other qualifying reasons. Update your FMLA policies, forms and practices to permit this leave.
- Bereavement and other leaves: If you offer bereavement leave for the death of a spouse or in-laws, you should update your policy to reflect that this leave includes same-sex spouses and relatives of the same-sex spouse. If you offer any other leaves that define immediate family or extend to familial situations, such as non-FMLA medical leave or military leave, update those definitions as well.
- Marital status discrimination: If you operate in states that prohibit discrimination based on an employee’s or applicant’s marital status, you will be prohibited from discriminating based on same-sex marriages.
- Emergency contacts and beneficiaries: Employees with a same-sex spouse may want to update their emergency contact or beneficiary information listed on group life insurance or retirement plans. Be prepared to administer these changes.
- Employee benefits: Group insurance, retirement and other employee benefit plans will need to be reviewed and updated. Be certain to consult your benefits attorney and plan administrators for advice on required changes.
- W-4 Forms and tax updates: In light of potential income tax implications for newly recognized same-sex spouses, some employees may want to change their tax withholding information. Be prepared to update W-4 and state withholding amounts upon request.
These and additional policies and procedures impacted by the Court’s ruling may require that you update your employee handbook, policies on your intranet, plan documents, forms, beneficiary designations and other personnel documents. Be sure to notify and train your human resources professionals and supervisors on all changes.
The Court’s landmark decision grants “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” to same-sex couples. Take this opportunity to review your employment policies and practices so your company does the same.