The United States Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, released on June 26, 2015, mandates that states may not ban the granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that each state must recognize a same-sex marriage lawfully performed in another state. This case is a consolidation of claims by 14 same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners are deceased; they claim state officials from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee violated the Fourteenth Amendment by denying them the right to marry or have their marriages given lawful recognition.
The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution is the source of the phrase “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and this is the cornerstone of the Court’s analysis in this case. Throughout the Court’s history, it has been challenged with interpreting exactly what liberties are included in that Constitutional protection, and the Court has gradually built up a precedent articulating that “liberty” extends to one’s personal choices “central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.”
More recently in our nation’s history, the Court has addressed attempted restrictions to marriage based on race (Loving v. Virginia), status of child support payments (Zablocki v. Redhail), and for prison inmates (Turner v. Safley). In these cases and many others, the Court repeatedly asserted that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty accorded through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. All of these cases presumed opposite-sex partners, and last week, the Court considered their rationales for the Constitutional support of marriage and expanded that rationale to include same-sex couples.
The Court found that the concepts of individual autonomy and supporting intimate commitments are vital to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. When they previously addressed marriage, they were really getting at that fundamental aspect of the human condition to have a committed partner and make private decisions regarding intimacy and family, and in Obergefell, they find no reason not to legally extend this to same-sex couples. Additionally, the Court draws on sociological policy regarding children and families as further reasons to support same-sex couples in having the same rights given to opposite-sex couples. For example, the Court acknowledges situations that cause same-sex couples stress that opposite-sex couples do not face, such as traveling to or through states that do not recognize gay marriage. Also, since same-sex couples must adopt children individually, in a time of emergency for the child, only one parent would have legal guardianship rights. Lastly, the Court seeks to reduce the impact social stigma can have on children growing up in same-sex households.
In Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson released statements verifying that despite Nebraska’s legislation defining marriage as only between a man and woman, the State will comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in making same-sex marriages legal in Nebraska.
The implications of the Court’s decision will be far-reaching. If same-sex couples choose to enter into marriage, the resulting “marital status” may affect tax status, spousal eligibility for employee benefits such as health insurance, and trust and estate planning. Employers should be sure to review all employee benefit plans and revise if needed to comply with the Court’s ruling. Additionally, employers may want to revisit any employee benefit provisions governing domestic partner eligibility in light of the fact that same-sex couples now have the legal ability to formalize their relationship via marriage.
The full opinion may be accessed at the Supreme Court’s website.