Supreme Court Rules States Can't Ban Same-Sex Marriage

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that the Constitution requires all states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize such marriages when they were lawfully licensed and performed out of state.

The Court's historic holding in the closely-watched case of Obergefell v. Hodges clears the way for same-sex marriage nationwide in finding that same-sex couples cannot be denied the benefits that are afforded to opposite-sex couples.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "The marriage laws at issue here harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples." In its ruling, the Court also pointed to the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state interracial marriage bans, noting that the institution of marriage has evolved over time.

The current case came to the Supreme Court after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee. However, a friend-of-the-court brief filed by 379 corporations and employer organizations, including American Express, Coca-Cola and Google, urged the Supreme Court to strike down these state bans. The brief argued that businesses benefit from diversity and inclusion.

Justice Kennedy noted that leaving the current state of affairs in place - recognizing same-sex marriage in some states but not in others - would promote instability and uncertainty. He also described the disruption caused by state same-sex marriage bans as "significant."

Los Angeles employment attorney Anthony Oncidi, of Proskauer Rose, said of the ruling, "One of the most immediate implications for employers is that there will now be complete uniformity in the tax and benefits treatment of all married couples, regardless of gender combinations. I'm certain employers will welcome this development."

Writing for the dissenters, Chief Justice John Roberts said there was no basis for the ruling in the Constitution or for requiring a state to change its definition of marriage. He asserted, "The Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the states and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia."

This case marks the Supreme Court's second landmark ruling on same-sex marriage in two years. In 2013, the Court struck down the key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor.

DOMA had denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, but the Windsor ruling enabled couples residing in states where same-sex marriages were legal to become eligible for more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections linked to marital status. The Court's new opinion extends that right to same-sex couples in all 50 states.