On June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) made the monumental decision ruling that the Fourteenth Amendement of the United States Constitution requires that all states permit marriage between same-sex couples as well as recognize marriages performed in other states between same-sex couples. The decision was close at 5-4, with Justice Kennedy joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer Sotomayor, and Kagan while Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalias, Thomas, and Alito dissented.
Justice Kennedy’s decision drew from the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause which states that no state shall, “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” and has extended to include “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” As the Supreme Court has long included marriage among these choices, the right to marry is identified as a fundamental liberty protected by the Constitution.
Alternatively, the dissenters were not convinced that the marriage of same-sex couples was protected under the Constitution. The main dissent, written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Thomas and Scalia, argued “though the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such extension are not.” Other dissenters also argued that the First Amendment would cease to protect religious objectors to same-sex marriage and while “religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage,” their ability to ‘exercise’ them would be questionable.
Implications for Employers
While some implications of the ruling still remain unclear, it has been made absolutely apparent that distinguishing between ‘marriage’ and ‘same-sex marriage’ is no longer permissible in any case. Employers also may need to consider whether to modify practices which afforded benefits to domestic partners, as domestic partners are now official spouses and domestic partner coverage may no longer be necessary. Employers located in states that have not previously recognized same-sex marriages should review their standing retirement and benefit plans and make sure that they are compliant with the law as now interpreted. While it is clear that tax-qualified retirement plans must recognize same-sex marriages for purposes of spousal rights, it still remains unclear whether rights such as those to spousal coverage under welfare benefit plans are recognized.