Following Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s decision to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a decision by Texas District Court Judge Reed O’Connor adds to the controversy and conversation surrounding the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights movement.
Opponents to the Indiana law say it will allow businesses to deny services to customers based on customers’ sexual orientation or gender identity and justify this denial based on religious beliefs. A day after Governor Pence signed Indiana’s RFRA into law, on March 27, 2015, the Arkansas legislature voted to enact its own religious freedom legislation known as the “Conscience Protection Act”, and the bill is currently before Governor Asa Hutchinson.
While the Arkansas Governor is set to consider religious freedoms and LGBT discrimination, Arkansas’s Attorney General has been battling the Department of Labor (DOL) in another issue impacting LGBT employees. On March 26, 2015, in Texas v. United States, N.D. Texas No. 7:15-cv-00056-O, Judge O’Connor granted an injunction to Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska to temporarily halt the DOL’s Final Rule revising the definition of “spouse” under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The DOL’s Final Rule took effect on March 27, 2015 and changed the definition of “spouse” to include individuals in same-sex marriages if the marriage was valid in the place it was entered into regardless of where they live. The Final Rule reads as follows:
Spouse, as defined in the statute, means a husband or wife. For purposes of this definition, husband or wife refers to the other person with whom an individual entered into marriage as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State. This definition includes an individual in a same-sex or common law marriage that either:
(1) Was entered into in a State that recognizes such marriages; or
(2) If entered into outside of any State, is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State.
29 C.F.R. § 825.102. This change enables eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages to take FMLA leave to care for a spouse with a serious medical condition. The Final Rule no longer looks to the laws of the state in which the employee resides but rather relies on the laws of the jurisdiction where the marriage was entered into--i.e. the place of celebration.
Texas law, similar to Ohio, does not recognize same sex marriage. Texas, joined by Arkansas, Nebraska, and Louisiana, argued that the DOL exceeded its jurisdiction by requiring them to violate the Full Faith and Credit Statute and/or state law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Texas argued that the Final Rule would require it to violate state law which prohibits it from giving any legal benefits asserted on the basis of a same-sex marriage. Judge O’Connor also relied on Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to hold that Congress intended to preserve a state’s ability to define marriage differently than another state or jurisdiction. Finding that the Final Rule would require Texas agencies to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages in violation of state law, Judge O’Connor temporarily halted the application of the Final Rule pending a full determination of this matter on the merits.
In these four states, Judge O’Connor’s decision prevents employees in same-sex marriages from receiving the benefits afforded heterosexual married couples until the issue is resolved through legal channels. However, employers are not prohibited from granting family leave benefits to qualifying employees to care for a loved one. Despite the decision—only applicable in four states—the Final Rule is currently in effect. For this reason, employers should proceed in accordance with the DOL’s regulation and fulfill its obligations to its LGBT employees by revising their family and medical leave policies and providing FMLA benefits to employees in legal same-sex marriages.