The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in United States v. Windsor (“Windsor”) on June 26, 2013, striking down Section 3 of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”). Section 3 prohibited same-sex marriages from being recognized under federal law. Many employers, most notably in states like Michigan where same-sex marriage is prohibited and recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states is banned, wonder what impact this ruling will have on their current practices.
Unfortunately at this time, it is difficult to say how Windsor will affect Michigan employers, at least in the private sector. Section 2 of DOMA, which permits states to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex marriage legalized in another state, was not at issue in Windsor, and therefore remains law for now. Furthermore, the Supreme Court did not address whether or not state laws banning same-sex marriage are constitutional, nor did it rule on how federal law must define “marriage” or “spouse.”
At least for now, it is likely safe to say that the law of the employee’s state of residence controls. As such, Windsor does not seem to require any current changes in Michigan private employer practices. Therefore, even if an employee’s same-sex marriage was legalized in a state such as New York, for example, Michigan law bans recognition of said marriage. One notable exception to this is if the employer has employees nationwide. Any employer with employees residing outside of Michigan should carefully review and evaluate payroll practices, benefit plans, and employees’ legal marriage status in light of Windsor.
Overall, the full significance of the Windsor ruling is unknown, especially for Michiganders, but broad, far-reaching effects are possible. It is unknown whether or not Michigan employers will need to recognize their employees’ same-sex unions performed in other states in the future, or whether Michigan’s current law banning such unions will hold up under further scrutiny in light of Windsor. Further court battles will need to flesh out the numerous lingering questions. In the meantime, if you have any questions about your current practices, please contact Wright Beamer.