Oregon’s prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, newly appointed U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane has held in a case filed on behalf of four couples in Multnomah County. Geiger v. Kitzhaber, No. 6:13-cv-01834-MC (May 19, 2014).
Judge McShane explained the measure discriminates against same-sex couples. “The state’s marriage laws unjustifiably treat same-gender couples differently than opposite-gender couples. The laws assess a couple’s fitness for civil marriage based on their sexual orientation: opposite-gender couples pass; same-gender couples do not. No legitimate state purpose justifies the preclusion of gay and lesbian couples from civil marriage.”
A state Constitutional amendment, enacted pursuant to a 2004 ballot initiative organized and sponsored by the Defense of Marriage Coalition, had prohibited same-sex marriage, stating that only “marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or legally recognized as a marriage.” This initiative and the subsequent Constitutional amendment were in response to the Multnomah County commissioner’s decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. During the Geiger litigation, Oregon’s Attorney General stated she found it impossible to legally defend the ban because “performing same-sex marriages in Oregon would have no adverse effect on existing marriages, and that sexual orientation does not determine an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and enduring relationship.” With Geiger, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex marriage is valid under Oregon state and federal law.
Further, although Oregon enacted a domestic partnership law in 2008, the Family Fairness Act, granting domestic partners similar rights and privileges to those enjoyed by married spouses, the Legislature acknowledged domestic partnerships did not reach the magnitude of rights inherent in the definition of marriage. For example, same-sex couples in Oregon were not entitled to the rights or benefits under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act because Department of Labor guidance recognizes same-sex marriage only if valid under the employee’s state of residence. The DOL, however, has proposed a rule expanding the term “spouse” and, if implemented, will recognize same-sex marriages when recognized in the couple’s state of residence or if performed in a state recognizing same-sex marriage. According to the Secretary of Labor, “The basic promise of the FMLA is that no one should have to choose between succeeding at work and being a loving family caregiver. Under the proposed revisions, the FMLA will be applied to all families equally, enabling individuals in same-sex marriages to fully exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities to their families.” No changes have been proposed, however, for purposes of the Employment Retirement Income and Security Act (“ERISA”), the federal law governing employee benefit plans. The DOL counsels employers that, for purposes of ERISA, same-sex marriage should be recognized if valid in the state it is performed.
While Geiger will simplify the legal landscape, employers should review policies, procedures, and benefit plans closely to ensure that same-sex spouses are treated equally in all respects. In addition, Oregon law further prevents employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and family status. Requiring same-sex couples to “prove their status” or take other similar measures that are not required of opposite-sex couples may increase the risk of potential litigation under these laws.