The U.S. Supreme Court announced (pdf) on Friday that it will decide the constitutionality of both the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines “marriage” as a legal union between a man and a woman, and California’s Proposition 8 (“Prop 8”), a 2008 state voter initiative banning gay marriage. While on their face these cases do not involve employment issues, their impact on employee benefits could be profound.

The two cases the Court agreed to hear are Windsor v. United States, in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals declared DOMA unconstitutional, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, in which the Ninth Circuit held that Prop 8 was illegal in California. The specific issues to be decided by the Court include:

  • Whether Section 3 of DOMA – which defines the term “marriage” for all purposes under federal law, including the provision of federal benefits, as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife” – violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws as applied to persons of the same sex who are legally married under the laws of their state;
  • Whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman; and
  • Whether the particular parties before the Court have standing to bring suit.

Depending on how the Court rules on the DOMA issue, married same-sex couples could be entitled to a host of federal benefits and protections, including the ability to file joint federal tax returns, receive spousal benefits through Social Security, obtain employer-sponsored medical benefits tax-free, and receive protection under the spousal provisions of ERISA relating to qualified retirement plans. With respect to Prop 8, the Court could declare same-sex marriage a constitutional right, or leave that issue to the states. The Court’s deliberations in these cases and the implications of its decisions will be monitored closely.