Alabama probate judges began issuing marriage licenses and presiding over ceremonies for same-sex couples a few days ago. The landmark occasion follows a recent ruling out of the Southern District of Alabama that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Monday morning, April 9, just before the first “I do’s” were said across Alabama, the Supreme Court refused the State’s request to stay the order invalidating the same-sex marriage ban pending appeal. This development is gleaning nationwide attention as legal eagles read the tea leaves on how the Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage at the end of this term. While this may be a legal and cultural milestone, Alabama employers should be paying close attention for other reasons:  this development will impact employee benefits.

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees of covered employers to take unpaid leave for reasons including to “care for a spouse, son, daughter, or parent who has a serious health condition.” The United States Department of Labor has defined spouse as “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the state where the employee resides, including ‘common law’ marriage and same-sex marriage.” This means that covered Alabama employers must now recognize same-sex marriages for FMLA purposes. Employers should keep in mind that this is not limited to new in-state marriages; an employee may have previously married a same-sex partner in another state where same-sex marriage was already legal. An employee may also be entitled to take leave to care for a spouse’s child with a serious health condition, even if the employee has not legally adopted the child but has day-to-day responsibilities to care for the child.

Employers offering benefits to employee spouses should also review their benefits policies to confirm they do not contain definitions of marriage or spouse inconsistent with state law. In many cases, same-sex spouses will now be eligible for health insurance coverage and other benefits through their spouses’ employers. 

The State of Alabama is now appealing the order striking down its same-sex marriage ban. Regardless of the appeal’s outcome, the same-sex marriage issue will remain a hot topic and should stay on employers’ radar as state law across the country continues to evolve and the Supreme Court prepares to rule later this year on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.