In a historic victory for gay rights, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples and cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California.
“Today’s significant ruling will likely spur further expansion of protections for LGBT individuals,” said Nonnie Shivers, a shareholder in the Phoenix office of Ogletree Deakins. “Employers must keep abreast of these rapidly expanding protections under federal, state, and local laws for not only gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, but also covering gender identity and gender expression. Employers should expect changes to federal laws impacting the workplace based on today’s rulings, in particular the inclusion of same-sex partners in leave considerations under the Family and Medical Leave Act and potentially sponsorship of same-sex partners for immigration purposes, as well as expanded state and local protections.”
The justices issued two 5-4 rulings in their final session of the term. One decision wiped away part of a federal anti-gay marriage law that has kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits.
The other was a technical ruling that said nothing at all about same-sex marriage, but left in place a trial court’s declaration that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. Gov. Jerry Brown quickly ordered that marriage licenses be issued to gay couples as soon as a federal appeals court lifts its hold on the lower court ruling, possibly next month.
In neither case did the court make a sweeping statement, either in favor of or against same-sex marriage. And in a sign that neither victory was complete for gay rights, the high court said nothing about the validity of gay marriage bans in California and roughly three dozen other states. A separate provision of the federal marriage law that allows a state to not recognize a same-sex union from elsewhere remains in place.
President Barack Obama praised the court’s ruling on the federal marriage act, which he labeled “discrimination enshrined in law.”
“It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people,” Obama said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was disappointed in the outcome of the federal marriage case and hoped states continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
The ruling in the California case was not along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia.
“We have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit,” Roberts said, referring to the federal appeals court that also struck down Proposition 8.