Do businesses have the right to not offer same sex marriage medical coverage?

In 1996, federal laws were enacted that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  These laws had puritan underpinnings and were primarily designed with regard to the provision of federal benefit programs.  These federal laws did not embroil themselves in the individual states’ ability to govern themselves and dole out state-level benefits as they saw fit.

Same sex marriage is currently legal in 12 states and Washington, D.C. A recent study was conducted at a Washington college was in favor of same sex marriage benefits.  As with medical marijuana, despite its legality on a state level, same sex marriage is still a taboo topic on a federal level due to the Defense of Marriage Act (the “one man, one woman” law).  Many LGBT couples got married in a state that legally recognizes and accepts same sex marriage even though they are permanent residents in a state that does not.  This is the primary crux of the medical benefit situation.  Since the couple’s home state doesn’t acknowledge that the marriage is legally valid or binding it does not have to offer spousal benefits to a person it does not consider to be a spouse.

There is really no other way to make the issue more crystal clear.  If you live and work in a state that does not acknowledge the validity of same sex marriages, you can’t expect your employer to provide you with spousal benefits enjoyed by what that state recognizes as a legally married couple.  That’s like traveling to another planet and expecting the alien inhabitants to speak English.

However, a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has given many LGBT married couples hope in their battle to obtain rights for their partners and spouses.  But don’t get your hopes up for medical benefits just yet…there’s more to the Supreme Court ruling than just a blanket disavowal of the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Section 2 of the DOMA was not challenged in the Supreme Court case (United States v Windsor) and was therefore not at issue in the case, so no opinion, ruling, or decision was made on that part of the federal law.  Section 2 states that individual states are left to their own devices regarding whether or not they will choose to recognize same sex marriages performed in other states.

Furthermore, Section 3 of the DOMA, which was at issue is the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.  This definition was outlined for federal purposes and affects only those federal mandates, policies, and provisions where marital status is addressed as a matter of federal law.  Again, this does not preclude the individual states from enacting laws prohibiting or permitting same sex marriage and the permissibility of benefits to same sex spouses.  Essentially, the only thing the Supreme Court’s ruling really did was change the Section 3 provision to invalidate the “one man and one woman” specification.

The Supreme Court’s ruling isn’t as earth-shattering as it initially seems.  It doesn’t affect whether or not states have to recognize and validate same sex marriages performed in other states, and it doesn’t affect whether or not individual states can permit or prohibit granting state-level benefits, including company-offered medical benefits, to same sex spouses.  What the ruling does, however, is change the game for federal benefits by nullifying the heterosexual wording of the DOMA.

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