Limited Employer Impact Likely from Gay Marriage Ruling

By Joanne Deschenaux Jun 26, 2015
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All 50 states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed out of state, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 26, 2015, in a historic victory for gay civil rights (Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14–556).

“Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. He was joined by the court’s liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Each of the four conservative justices who dissented from the opinion—Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito—wrote a separate opinion, saying that the court had usurped a power that belongs to the people.

Implications for Employers

The impact of this decision on many employers will be limited, Scott D. Schneider, an attorney in Fisher & Phillips’ New Orleans office, told SHRM Online.

In states where same-sex marriage is currently legal, this ruling will have no effect, he said. But in other states, “employers should sit down and ask, ‘Where do we stand in light of this ruling?’ ”

One area that may be impacted is the granting of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Schneider said. “Someone who enters into a same-sex marriage may be entitled to FMLA leave.”

Similarly, employers in states that have not allowed same-sex marriage to date should examine their medical insurance and retirement plans. Same-sex spouses may qualify as beneficiaries under these plans now, where previously they might have been legally excluded from participating.

“The bottom line is that all employer policies related to spouses should apply to same-sex marriages,” according to Nonnie Shivers, an attorney in the Ogletree Deakins Phoenix office. In addition, employers should require the same level and type of proof of a same-sex marriage as they would of any other marriage, she said.

In some ways, this will make things easier for employers, she noted. “They won’t have to try to figure out whether they need to recognize someone’s same-sex marriage performed in another state. Anyone who has entered into a same-sex marriage is protected as a spouse.”

But, as a practical matter, employers should be aware that in states that have not previously allowed same-sex marriage, things are not going to change overnight, Shivers added. “Some county clerks—the ones who issue marriage licenses—have said that they are going to wait to hear about changes from the attorney general,” she said. This means that employers should be somewhat cautious about changing certain policies. For example, if an employer has policies in place regarding domestic partnerships, it may not want to change those policies immediately, she suggested.

And she cautioned that just because the legality of same-sex marriage is now a settled issue, that doesn’t mean that it won’t sometimes be a “hot-button" issue in the workplace. Employers need to be prepared to deal with possible employee reactions—whether based on religious beliefs or other factors—to gay and lesbian employees in the workplace, she said.

Court Finds 14th Amendment Protection

Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee are four of the states that have defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Fourteen same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners are deceased had filed suits in federal district courts in their home states, claiming that state officials violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by denying them the right to marry or to have their marriages that were lawfully performed in another state given full recognition in their home state. Each district court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals consolidated the cases and reversed, ruling in favor of the states.

In reversing the 6th Circuit decision, the high court first examined the history of marriage as a union between two persons of the opposite sex, noting that while state officials arguing against same-sex marriage claimed that “it would demean a timeless institution if marriage were extended to same-sex couples,” the plaintiffs “far from seeking to devalue marriage, seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities.”

The court then noted the changes over time in the nature of marriage—such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the laws that declared a wife the property of her husband—noting that these changes “have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential.” These new insights “have strengthened, not weakened, the institution,” the court said.

The opinion next discussed the country’s experience with gay and lesbian rights. Well into the 20th century, many states condemned same-sex intimacy as immoral, the court noted, and homosexuality was treated as an illness. Later in the century, public attitudes shifted, allowing same-sex couples to lead more open lives. Then, questions about the legal treatments of gays and lesbians began reaching the courts, with numerous same-sex marriage cases reaching the federal courts and state supreme courts.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion now sets forth its holding that the U.S. Constitution requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a same-sex marriage performed out of state.

The court has long held that the right to marry is protected by the 14th Amendment, the opinion noted, and the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples. “The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.”

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is SHRM’s senior legal editor.

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