Defense of Marriage Act Deemed Unconstitutional

By Laura Kerekes, SPHR, Chief Knowledge Officer for ThinkHR Corporation

Today the Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of 5 – 4 in a 77-page decision in the case of United States v. Windsor, that the federal Defense of Marriage Act that has defined “marriage” as a union between a man and a woman only for purposes of many federal laws, programs and services, is unconstitutional.   The Court waited until the last decision day of the 2012-2013 term to announce its opinion on this landmark case.

The Decision:  In a nutshell, the Court explained that the states have always had the responsibility of regulating and defining marriage, and some states have opted to allow same-sex couples to marry.  The Court went on to state that by denying recognition to same-sex couples who are legally married under state law, federal law discriminates against them by not approving state-sanctioned same-sex marriage.

What does this really mean?  This decision means that same-sex couples who are legally married must now be treated the same under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.  States that do not recognize same sex marriages may continue to establish their own state laws relating to the subject.

As a result, married same-sex couples in states where the unions are legal will be eligible for equal benefits under federal programs, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Consolidated Omnibus Benefits Reconciliation Act (COBRA), the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Equal Employment Opportunity, Social Security, and immigration and tax laws.

This ruling will impact employers with multi-state operations and could make employee communications, policy decisions and benefits complex.  The Supreme Court’s ruling will only impact same-sex couples in states that legally recognize these relationships.  For states without legalized same-sex marriages, employees in same-sex relationships will not be impacted by this decision.

The Impact:  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:

  • 35 states that limit marriage to opposite sex couples
  • 13 states and the District of Columbia allow same sex marriage (California*, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington)

*California’s Proposition 8, prohibiting same sex marriages was struck down by the Supreme Court today (see notes below).

(Please note that Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota passed same-sex marriage legislation in 2013. Rhode Island and Minnesota’s laws take effect on August 1 and Delaware’s takes effect on July 1).


Another Landmark Ruling from the Court Today Affecting California’s Same-Sex Couples

In a separate decision, another landmark case was settled…by default.  Rather than directly deciding the issue, the Supreme Court declined jurisdiction on appeal of the California law prohibiting same-sex marriage in Hollingsworth v. Perry.  The Court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, allowing the earlier district court decision to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which limited marriages to relationships between a man and a woman and prohibited same-sex marriages, to stand.

This ruling applies only to California and opens the door for same-sex marriages in California to begin again.

We will continue to monitor how these landmark cases will impact our clients and provide additional details as they become known.