New Mexico Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage, Court Strikes Down Utah’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban

Last week, New Mexico became the 17th state to allow same-sex marriage; and, for now, Utah is the 18th state.

On December 19, 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, ending over a decade of confusion. In a unanimous decision, the court said the state constitution gives same-sex couples the right to marry. Griego v. Oliver (NM Sup. Ct. 2013)

The confusion arose because New Mexico was the only state to have no law either banning or allowing same-sex marriage. In 2004, a county official began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the state quickly blocked that practice. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Windsor decision in June of this year, local officials again began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This time, the state did not block them and asked the state Supreme Court to decide the issue, which it did.

On December 20, 2013, a federal judge struck down the state of Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, which voters had approved in 2004. Kitchen v. Herbert (D. Utah 2013). The judge held that the law “conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law.” In his 53-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby wrote that the state’s “current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional,” he said.

On Sunday, a federal appeals court rejected the state’s emergency request to stay the ruling, saying they could not rule on a stay since Shelby has not acted on the motion before him. Today, Judge Shelby will consider the state’s request to block gay weddings that have been taking place since Friday when the state’s same-sex marriage ban was overturned. Lawyers for the state want the ruling put on hold as they appeal the decision. Even if a stay is granted, legal experts say licenses that have already been issued will likely still be valid.

As more states legalize same-sex marriage, employers’ legal obligations change. Legalization affects employees’ rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and state leave laws, state employment discrimination laws, and employee benefit plans. The Internal Revenue Service has issued guidance on tax treatment and employee benefit plans for same-sex married couples. Employers should stay tuned to the latest developments.