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Supreme Court Decision Legalizing Same Sex Marriage Has Critical Impact on Michigan Workers and Employers

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Obergefell et al. V. Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health, et al. pertaining to 14 same sex couples and two male same sex partners, now deceased, who challenged the constitutionality of the state laws of, Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. The Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex. The Court also held that the 14th Amendment requires a State to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when that marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state.

The Obergefell decision impacts more than the legality of same-sex marriages. The legalization of same-sex marriages will affect benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), survivor benefits, health care benefits and other fringe benefits provided to workers, their spouses and their children. The resolution of these issues, may take substantial time and additional review by the highest court in the country. What is clear is that Michigan companies that provide their employees with health insurance must extend coverage to their same-sex spouses. Certain employers may mount challenges to the application of the Obergefell holding, alleging that they have the right to deny workplace benefits to same-sex spouses due to religious beliefs (see e.g. the Hobby Lobby decision-which succeeded on challenging its right to deny payment for employees' birth control because of the owners' religious beliefs).1

However, currently neither federal law nor Michigan law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In the wake of the Obergefell decision, it seems very likely that federal civil rights laws and the Michigan civil rights laws will expand to include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

1See also, the laws recently passed in Michigan that allow "faith-based" child placement agencies to decline adoption services to couples on religious grounds It appears that the ACLU will be challenging the legality of some of these statutes.

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