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Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional: Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday declared unconstitutional key provisions of the controversial 1996 law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Ruling 5-4 in favor of an elderly New York widow who was charged hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes that would have been waived had her deceased spouse been of the opposite sex, the court overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on the grounds that it denies married same-sex couples equal protection under the due process clause of Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Prior to Wednesday's ruling, Section 3 of DOMA barred legally wed gay and lesbian couples from accessing the same federal rights and benefits afforded to opposite-sex married couples, including the right to file joint federal tax returns or collect their spouse's Social Security benefits after their death.

In the court's majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Section 3 of DOMA “singles out a class of persons deemed by a state entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty.”

“The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the state finds to be dignified and proper.”

President Barack Obama praised the Supreme Court for striking down DOMA.

“This was discrimination enshrined in law,” the president said in a statement.

“I've directed the attorney general to work with other members of my cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly,” President Obama said in the statement.

“As a result of today’s ruling, the federal government is no longer forced to discriminate against legally married same sex couples,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “The Department of Health and Human Services will work with the Department of Justice to review all relevant federal statutes and ensure this decision is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”

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The Washington-based American Benefits Council also praised the court's ruling.

Striking down DOMA “frees employers from a number of financial and administrative burdens, and we applaud the court's ruling,” council President James A. Klein said in a statement. “Of course, this ruling brings new challenges, as employers now must be mindful of significant variations in state laws regarding same-sex couples.”

According to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, the percentage of Fortune 500 companies that offer health insurance and other benefits to their employees' domestic partners has grown significantly during the past 10 years, from 40% in 2003 to 62% in 2012.

The high court's decision likely will implicate thousands of employer-sponsored benefit programs, though the greatest effect likely will be in the 12 states and the District of Columbia that currently recognize same-sex marriages.

“The court's ruling doesn't by itself mandate employers to provide health benefits to same-sex couples,” said Bennett Pine, a New York-based shareholder at law firm Anderson Kill & Olick P.C.

However, absent DOMA's restrictive definition of terms such as “marriage” and “spouse,” employers that offer health and retirement benefits to opposite-sex married couples through plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and other federal laws could be required to offer matching benefits to legally wed gay and lesbian couples, Mr. Pine said.

It was not immediately clear whether an employer's obligations to their employees' spouses under ERISA will be determined by the state in which the benefit plan is domiciled, the state in which the marriage was performed or the state in which the couple resides.

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The 12 states that currently permit same-sex marriage are Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Mr. Pine said the high court's ruling should provide administrative relief to employers that already offer spousal benefits to legally married same-sex couples by ending their disparate treatment under the U.S. Tax Code.

The court's decision also will likely extend protection for legally wed same-sex couples under the Family and Medical Leave Act — which provides employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for sick family members, including spouses — to legally married same-sex couples, who currently are not covered under the law, Mr. Pine said.

Scott Macey, president of the Washington-based ERISA Industry Committee, said the Supreme Court ruling could significantly affect the way benefit plans are administered.

“Notably, the decisions leave many issues unanswered,” Mr. Macey said in a statement. “Among the issues that will need to be addressed further include how quickly plans will need to act as a result of the court's decisions and the best methods for implementing these changes.”

A copy of the Supreme Court's ruling is available here.