The United States Supreme Court today issued two important
decisions on same-sex marriage rights. In United States v. Windsor,
the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage
Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. The Court
found that defining marriage to exclude same sex unions is unconstitutional and
violated the equal protections afforded by the Fifth Amendment of the
In a second case, Hollingsworth v. Perry,
the Court left in place a federal court’s decision that Proposition 8 is
unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. Proposition 8 outlawed same-sex
marriage in California by defining marriage as between only a man and a woman.
California employers should know that these cases impact
federal benefits for same-sex marriages. It remains to be seen exactly how
various federal agencies will act in light of the decisions.
In Windsor, the
Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a provision of DOMA that defined the term
“spouse” as only a person of the opposite sex and the term “marriage” as a
legal union between only one man and one woman as husband and wife.
As the Court noted, the meaning of these terms is important
in more than 1,000 federal statutes and “the whole realm of federal
The case was brought by Edith Windsor, who lawfully wed Thea
Spyer in Canada and whose marriage was legally recognized in New York where she
resided. When Spyer passed away, Windsor was forced to pay more than $360,000
in federal estate taxes on her inheritance because the Internal Revenue Service,
under DOMA, defined “spouse” to exclude same-sex partners.
The Court ruled that DOMA’s definitions of “marriage” and
“spouse,” which denied same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that
come with federal recognitions of their marriages, violated the equal liberty
“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all
persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that
their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others,” Justice Anthony Kennedy
wrote for the majority.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose
overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the
State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
In the second 5-4 decision, the Court faced the question of
whether the California ballot measure Proposition 8 was constitutional. Same-sex
couples who had been married in California challenged Proposition 8 and sued
the state. Lower courts found that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. The U.S.
Supreme Court refused to hear the case on jurisdictional grounds.
The effect of the refusal is that the lower courts’ decision
that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional will stand.
to the decision, Governor Brown directed the California Department of
Public Health to advise county officials that all county clerks and county
registrar/recorders must comply with the federal court injunction against
enforcing Proposition 8.
“However, same-sex Californians will not be able to marry
until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirms the stay of the injunction,
which has been in place throughout the appeals process, is lifted,” Governor
Brown said in a statement.
Benefits Will Be
In those states that recognize same-sex marriage, of which
California is now one of 13, employers will need to examine federal benefits
The definition of “spouse,” as the U.S. Supreme Court noted,
appears in a multitude of federal statutes and regulations which impact
- COBRA coverage
- ERISA benefit plans
- The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) —
employees would be able to take leave for same-sex spouses
- The Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act (HIPPA)
- Flexible spending accounts
- The Internal Revenue Code — health benefits for “spouses” not
included in an employee’s “gross income”
HRCalifornia will continue to keep you apprised as federal
agencies begin to comply with this decision. California employers with any
immediate questions about providing benefits to same-sex couples are advised to
consult with legal counsel.
Whaley, CalChamber Employment Law Counsel/Content