Massachusetts Federal District Court Judge Joseph Tauro last week declared unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
DOMA, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, states that for purposes of interpreting any federal law a person will not be considered married unless his or her spouse is of the opposite sex. According to the federal court decision, DOMA violates the Constitution's equal-protection clause and the 10th Amendment to the Constitution by encroaching upon the state’s right to define marriage. The decision applies to Massachusetts residents only.
If the decision holds up through appeals, it would mean that the federal government would likely have to recognize those same-sex marriages already recognized by states, and thus provide benefits such as Medicaid to same-sex spouses. The decision would not mean that both federal and state governments would have to recognize same-sex marriage nationwide.
The Obama administration is contemplating an appeal. Some observers expect the case to end up before the United States Supreme Court.
What does this decision mean for Massachusetts employers?
The Department of Justice will likely request that the decision be “stayed” (or delayed from taking effect) until any appeals are completed.
Employers should therefore adhere to DOMA for purposes of benefits administration with respect to federal programs. Important federal laws under the DOMA umbrella include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), COBRA (health benefits continuation law), and the federal tax code.
Massachusetts employment laws including Mini-COBRA, the Small Necessities Leave Act (SNLA), the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA), and the Massachusetts state tax code already require Massachusetts employers to extend relevant benefits/treatment to same-sex married employees.