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The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday declared that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to the same spousal rights and benefits as opposite-sex couples.
In a historic 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws barring same-sex couples from legally marrying violate their rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The court's ruling overturns same-sex marriage bans in 13 states, as well as laws in several states that prohibited the recognition of legal same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
“It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the nation's society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage,” Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest,” the high court ruled.
However in a dissent for the four-judge minority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the majority did not cite “a single case or other legal source providing any basis for such a constitutional right. None exists.”
Reaction to the long-awaited ruling was swift.
The Washington-based ERISA Industry Committee hailed the decision as a victory for gay and lesbian employees who previously may have had limited or no access to spousal health and retirement benefits, as well as employers that have struggled to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples against varying state laws.
“The nation's top employers, many of whom are members of ERIC, will be relieved to be able to treat their employees uniformly, regardless of where they live or work,” President and CEO Annette Guarisco said a statement. “Today's decision helps our industry with that federally needed consistency.”
Despite inconsistent state laws, the percentage of U.S. companies offering health and retirement benefits to gay and lesbian couples has grown steadily in recent years.
Ninety-three percent of the 781 midsize and large employers surveyed in 2014 by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign currently provide comprehensive health benefits — including medical, dental, vision, dependent medical and COBRA continuation coverage — for their employees' same-sex spouses and domestic partners.
“This decision will end the patchwork system we currently have,” President Barack Obama said in a speech late Friday morning. “It will end the uncertainty hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples face from not knowing whether their marriage, legitimate in the eyes of one state, will remain if they decide to move (to) or even visit another.”
The president's comments were echoed by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, who in 2014 declared that his office would no longer enforce the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
“The fractured laws across the country concerning same-sex marriage had created an unsustainable and unbalanced legal environment, wherein citizens were treated differently depending on the state in which they resided,” Gov. Beshear said in a statement. Kentucky was among the four states — including Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan — whose same-sex marriage bans were challenged in the case before the Supreme Court.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, whose administration had defended the state's ban on same-sex marriage, said that his office would respect the court's ruling.
“Recognizing that there are strong feelings on both sides, it is important for everyone to respect the judicial process and the decision today from the U.S. Supreme Court,” Gov. Snyder said. “Our state government will follow the law and our state agencies will make the necessary changes to ensure that we will fully comply.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh the question of whether state-level bans on same-sex marriage violate the U.S. Constitution before the end of its current term.