On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court issued two of the most important LGBT-related decisions in U.S. history. In Hollingsworth v. Perry the court essentially reinstated marriage for same-sex couples in California (and California has already allowed those marriages) and in Windsor v. United States it held that the federal government is required to recognize marriages between same-sex couples.
It’s also important to note what it did not do. The court did not require that all states recognize valid marriages between same-sex couples, and it did not require that every state allow marriages between same-sex couples. The court left the question of whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry for another day.
There are two major things to consider from the Supreme Court’s marriage decisions. The first is what do these decisions mean for married same-sex couples, and the second is what do these decisions mean for ongoing attempts to eliminate discrimination against the LGBT community? Although it will take some time to find answers, in the few short weeks since the decisions were announced, we have already seen significant movement to recognize all marriages between same-sex couples.
The main question confronting the federal government is whether it will adopt the “place of celebration” (where a couple got married, including foreign countries) or “place of domicile” (where the couple lives) rule to determine whether the marriage is valid. For example, those couples that live in states and jurisdictions that have marriage equality (recognition states), like the District of Columbia and Maryland, will certainly be considered married for all federal purposes as their marriages are valid under both “place of celebration” and “place of domicile” rules. However, married same-sex couples who live in Virginia (a non-recognition state) will have to see whether the “place of celebration” or the “place of domicile” rule will govern the federal benefit they are seeking.
After Windsor, President Obama directed all federal agencies to review their policies to come up with a plan to implement marriage equality on the federal level as soon as possible. A number of federal agencies have already issued their own marriage definition policies. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) published guidance that says that the “place of ‘celebration’ rule will determine the validity of a marriage for all federal employees. This means that any federal employee married to a same-sex spouse, no matter where the employee lives, is married for federal government purposes.
Federal employees should immediately contact their Human Resources departments to apply for any benefits for which they may now be eligible. The federal government has indicated that the Windsor decision will be considered a “qualifying event” so federal employees have 60 days to revisit their benefit choices.
The United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) has also said that “place of celebration” will determine the validity of a marriage for immigration purposes. That means that bi-national same-sex married couples, no matter where they currently live, will be treated the same as opposite-sex married couples. In fact, a deportation of a foreign spouse underway prior to Windsor was stopped, and a gay male foreign spouse in Florida has been approved for a green card under the new immigration policy.
Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, has said that the military will treat all married couples the same, no matter where they got married, using the “place of celebration” rule. This means that military spouses will have rights to health insurance, base housing, ID cards, on-base shopping privileges, burial at Arlington Cemetery and more. Eligibility for Social Security benefits, however, has historically depended on the “place of domicile” rule. We are waiting for further developments in this area.
It seems clear that in the end, the federal government will adopt an across-the-board “place of celebration” rule for eligibility for all federal benefits relating to marriage. Any other policy would be untenable. This policy would give married couples access to more than 1,000 rights and responsibilities on the federal level.
Locally, the University of Maryland has said that as of July 31, 2013, it will treat all married couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, equally. Other institutions are also coming out with their own policies on how married same-sex couples will be treated. But, the marriage of a same-sex couple that lives in a “recognition” state (D.C., Maryland and Delaware locally), should be valid for all purposes, state, local and federal. Anything less would be discrimination forbidden under Windsor.
Married couples with children however, should still do second-parent adoptions if they are available, and complete their estate planning as the Windsor decision DOES NOT require all states to recognize any legal relationships based on the couples’ marriages. As before, it is absolutely crucial to obtain court orders granting these legal relationships separate from the marriage.
If you haven’t married, but have been waiting for the fall of DOMA, contact your lawyer to discuss the implications of the Windsor decision for you. Make sure you know all of the implications before you take the big step. If you are married and work for a state government or private employer, and you live in a recognition state — again, D.C., Delaware and Maryland locally — also contact your employer to make sure all of your coverages are what you want. Do this as soon as possible.
Although the Supreme Court cases did not impact the 29 states with constitutional amendments and laws prohibiting marriage equality, Windsor and Perry opened the door for challenges to those laws, and for arguments that those states must recognize valid marriages between same-sex couples. We are already seeing immediate and significant litigation around marriage equality. Marriage equality cases have been filed in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and will be filed shortly in Virginia. There is continuing litigation in Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey around these issues.
The fact that same-sex marriages will be recognized on the federal level is, of course, extremely important. But, to me, how the court got to this decision may be even more important because of what the court’s legal analysis means for future cases. Everyone expected DOMA to be struck down, but on the basis of states’ rights — that each state could decide for itself whether it would have marriage equality. But instead of states’ rights, the court based its decision on Equal Protection, a constitutional protection for groups that are targets of social animus. That opens the door for challenges to ANY law discriminating against lesbians and gay men. Even Justice Anton Scalia recognized this. Here’s what he said:
“In my opinion, however, the view that this Court will take of state prohibition of same-sex marriage is indicated beyond mistaking by today’s opinion. As I have said, the real rationale of today’s opinion, whatever disappearing trail of its legalistic argle-bargle one chooses to follow, is that DOMA is motivated by ” ‘bare . . . desire to harm’” couples in same-sex marriages. Supra, at 18. How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status.”
One of the only times I hope he’s right!
Michele Zavos is a long-time lesbian activist attorney and founder and principal of the Zavos Juncker Law Group, PLLC, which practices in all three area jurisdictions.