Supreme Court Rules DOMA Unconstitutional, Strikes Down California’s Prop 8

In a 5 to 4 decision issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. United States v. Windsor, Executor of the Estate of Spyer, et al., (USSCT 2013). Passed in 1996, DOMA defines marriage as between one man and one woman and denies same-sex couples federal benefits such as Social Security and tax benefits. At that time, same-sex marriage was not legal anywhere in the world. In 2006, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriages, and today, 12 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry.

The Court held that DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment by providing federal benefits to opposite-sex married couples, but not same-sex married couples, effectively deeming same-sex marriages “less worthy.” The Court found no legitimate basis to overcome the effect of the denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in the states in which they reside.

The Court also struck down California’s Prop 8, clearing the way for same-sex marriages to resume there. The decision in this case was based on a technicality, not on a constitutional basis. Hollingsworth v. Perry, et al., (USSCT 2013). The Court ruled that the proponents of Prop 8 did not have standing to appeal the lower court’s decision striking down the voter-approved initiative banning same-sex marriages after California’s governor and attorney general declined to do so.

In making these decisions, the Court did not rule on whether same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry. These cases allow same-sex couples to receive federal benefits such as Social Security and the same tax treatment as opposite-sex married couples, including the ability to file joint fedral tax returns. And, although these decisions do not invalidate gay marriage bans in other states, like those in Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, they expose them to legal challenges. Following these decisions, gay rights advocates are expected to seek to overturn Colorado’s ban by ballot initiative. Also, Colorado’s newly enacted Civil Unions Act says that parties to civil unions cannot file joint state tax returns because the cannot file joint federal tax returns due to DOMA. With the today’s Windsor decison, this may change.     

More information on the impact of these decisions on employee benefits will be discussed at our upcoming Benefit Update Conferences on July 9 in Colorado Springs, July 16 in Denver, July 18 in Fort Collins, and July 23 in Grand Junction.