On Friday, the Supreme Court announced the ruling for Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case argued before the court on April 28. The Supreme Court opinion addressed two issues, stating 1) that states must issue marriage licenses for two people of the same sex, and 2) that states must recognize same-sex marriages that are lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state.
In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy reasoned that the Fourteenth Amendment’s rights to due process and to equal protection translate to a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Justice Kennedy concluded, “The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.”
This ruling may affect benefit structures for employers that are based in, or whose employees reside in, states that previously banned same-sex marriage. Employers should examine Summary Plan Descriptions and other plan documents to ensure that the plan’s treatment of legally married same-sex spouses is equal to its treatment of opposite-sex couples. Employers should also revisit the issue of unmarried domestic partner coverage, which is required by some state and local laws. Other policies may be affected as well. For example, employees who otherwise qualify for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave will be entitled to leave to care for their legally married spouses.
Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that “democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights,” and that “the dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.” This ruling is likely to trigger further lawsuits and legislative action regarding discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, including employment discrimination. Employers should expect to modify policies in the next few years to conform with any changes to federal, state or local laws.