On Friday, June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v Hodges holding that all fifty states must legally allow and recognize same-sex marriages. The appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court was brought by 14 same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners are deceased. The petitioners each had filed claims in federal district courts in their own states claiming that their states’ same-sex marriage bans violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Each district court ruled in the petitioners’ favor. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals consolidated each of those cases and reversed the decisions made by each district court, thereby upholding the same-sex marriage bans.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Obergefell reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision. The 5-4 landmark decision struck down same-sex marriage bans in 14 states, including Michigan, and means that same-sex married couples must be recognized in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples for all applicable purposes. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Michigan employers arguably retained the discretion to define “spouse” as only an opposite-sex spouse for purposes of any spousal coverage under its welfare benefit plans. The Court’s decision will likely prohibit that practice with regard to insured benefit programs, and require employers that offer such spousal benefits to extend those benefits to both opposite-sex and same-sex spouses. An employer should review its human resources policies and welfare benefit plan documents to determine whether any changes are needed in order to comply with the Obergefell decision.