Employees, Employers Weigh In (on Same Side!) on Two Marriage Equality Cases to be Heard by the Supreme Court this Month

Employees and employers will be watching two upcoming Supreme Court cases that confront the issue of marriage equality. 

The first, Hollingsworth v. Perry, asks whether California’s Proposition 8 is constitutional.  Proposition 8 was a ballot measure passed by Californians in 2008 that limited, through a constitutional amendment, marriage to a union between a man and a woman.  A federal district court later struck down the law because it violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses in the United States Constitution.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed.    

In the second case, United States v. Windsor, Edith Windsor was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate she inherited from her deceased same-sex spouse.  Ms. Windsor challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA), which denied her tax protections that a widow of a heterosexual marriage would have enjoyed in the same situation.  Accordingly, the central question before the Court is similar to the one in Hollingsworth: whether the provision in DOMA limiting the definition of “marriage” to a union of a man and a woman is constitutional.  (As discussed more fully in this article, both cases also present less interesting legal questions that may prevent the Court from issuing a robust constitutional ruling.)

How do these cases impact the workplace?  Both DOMA and Proposition 8 sanction workplace segregation between straight and GLBT employees.  This segregation impacts not only the dignity of long-term same-sex couples but their pocketbooks.  For example, in many cases, employer-sponsored health benefits may be withheld from same-sex spouses.  If provided, such benefits are subject to federal taxes, unlike those for opposite sex spouses.  The same is true for other federal benefits bestowed on workers.  Accordingly, administering benefits has become challenging for employers, particularly in states where same-sex marriage is legal under state law but unrecognized under federal law.  Striking down these laws would not only restore basic rights to same-sex spouses and desegregate the workplace, but also untangle what has become an unnecessarily complex web of state and federal laws prone to tripping up employers. 

These moral and practical concerns have driven many employers, unions, and business organizations to file amicus briefs urging the Court to strike down DOMA and Proposition 8.  For example, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, both large organizations representing labor unions, filed an amicus brief in Hollingsworth, while a  massive group of 278 employers and organizations representing employers did so in Windsor.        

Oral arguments for Hollingsworth and Windsor takes place later this month, on March 26th and 27th respectively.