On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court published a historic landmark decision regarding same-sex marriage. In Obergefell v. Hodges, __ U.S. __ (2015), the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to issue a marriage license to two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between same-sex individuals when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state.
Today, the Court reaffirmed that the right to marry is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, and this right applies equally to opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The Court reasoned that by banning same-sex marriage, a state was violating the Equal Protection Clause by not allowing same-sex couples to exercise their fundamental right to marry, and receive government benefits related to marriage. Additionally, the Court concluded that if states are required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, there is no justification for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Thus, states are required to recognized same-sex marriages that are performed in other states, and in other countries.
Prior to Obergefell, the following states banned same-sex marriages: Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, and Tennessee. The following states banned same-sex marriage but those bans were declared unconstitutional by lower courts: Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Texas.
Impact on Employers: Today’s ruling will impact employers differently, depending on where the employer is located. Federally regulated benefits have required same-sex couples to be treated the same as opposite-sex couples since the 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The IRS requires same-sex couples, who are legally married, to be treated as married for federal tax purposes, which includes the pre-tax treatment of health insurance coverage. All other federal statutory benefits, including HSAs, FSAs, HRAs, Dependent Care plans, and COBRA benefits must recognize same-sex marriages. Additionally, under the FMLA, eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages must be allowed to take FMLA leave to care for their spouse and other family members. However, until today, the taxation and treatment of state regulated benefits for same-sex couples differed depending on whether the state recognized same-sex marriage.
In light of today’s ruling, employers should review their benefits and employment policies. Many states already have non-discrimination law related to sexual orientation. For example, the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of sexual orientation, and Minnesota has recognized same-sex marriages since 2013. Other states, like Michigan, do not have state-wide sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws, but, cities like Ann Arbor have passed local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in employment. This is a good time for employers to evaluate their handbook and employment policies related to sexual orientation and marriage to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local laws. Employers in states that, prior to today, did not recognize same-sex marriage can expect changes regarding, among other things, required benefits for same-sex spouses and the tax treatment of those benefits.
For more information on this article, or if you have questions regarding your responsibilities as an employer, please contact Attorney Caitlin Gadel, at firstname.lastname@example.org, 952-921-4619, or any attorney at Peters, Revnew, Kappenman & Anderson, P.A.
Special thanks to Law Clerk Richard Sharp for his contributions to this article.