The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that all states must license marriages between two people of the same sex on the same terms that apply to opposite-sex couples and must recognize same-sex marriages that are validly performed in other states. In Obergefell v. Hodges, a 5-4 majority of the Court found that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violated both the due process laws and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. 

Although the decision barely references the Defense of Marriage Act, the effect of the ruling is to strike down the portions of that law that remained after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor. In Windsor, the Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had limited the word “marriage” in any federal law or regulation to only a union between a man and a woman.

States that have not already begun issuing same-sex marriage licenses will need to start doing so. In operation, state laws that have previously applied to opposite-sex married couples will now apply equally to those who enter into a same-sex marriage.

The ruling does not extend to civil unions, registered domestic partnerships, or similar arrangements recognized under state laws. With the nationwide availability of marriage to same-sex couples, certain states may re-examine their laws extending rights to those who have entered into committed relationships outside of marriage, and employers may wish to reconsider their policies with regard to these relationships.

Many employers have already taken action to recognize same-sex marriages and to make adjustments to account for IRS and other guidance issued following Windsor on subjects such as spousal consent, cafeteria plan elections, and FMLA leave. For these employers (and a number of others), the Supreme Court’s ruling will not require extensive changes to their employee benefit plans and employment practices. For example, if an employer’s plan currently defines the term “spouse” as legally married spouse, the ruling will not require the definition to be changed. It may simply mean that more individuals will now be recognized as spouses under the plan. 

That being said, employers should evaluate how the ruling affects their benefit plans, insurance arrangements, leave policies, and other practices. The majority’s decision is expressly respectful of those who have differing views on the subject of same-sex marriage, and it remains to be seen what the effect of the decision will be on private entities.

Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Group and Labor and Employment Group regularly advise employers on employer policies and programs affecting same-sex couples.  For more information, please contact Edward I. Leeds at 215.864.8419 or leeds@ballardspahr.com, Brian M. Pinheiro at 215.864.8511 or pinheiro@ballardspahr.com, Diane A. Thompson at 424.204.4334 or thompsonda@ballardspahr.com, Christopher W. Welsch at 215.864.8222 or welschc@ballardspahr.com, or the member of the Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation or Labor and Employment Groups with whom you work.


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