On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriages across the country. The basis of the Court’s decision was the determination that marriage, regardless of whether it is between persons of the same or opposite sex, is a fundamental constitutional right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Subsequent to the Court decision the United States Attorney General announced on July 9, 2015 that federal marriage benefits will be available to same-sex couples nationwide, beginning with social security and veterans benefits.

The purpose of this letter is to provide school districts with an understanding of school district obligations under the Obergefell ruling.

  1. School districts need to provide benefits to same-sex spouses, the same benefits provided to opposite sex spouses prior to Obergefell.
  2. School board policies and benefits that define or refer to marriage or spouses in the application of federal benefits, state benefits, or benefits conferred by school district policy or collective bargaining agreements are affected. Examples of benefits that likely will be affected are: health benefits, retirement benefits, insurance benefits, leave and absence benefits, FMLA policies, collective bargaining agreements, beneficiary designations, health care spending accounts, dependent child care, COBRA benefits, nepotism policies, and any rights already provided to opposite-sex spouses under school district policy or collective bargaining agreement.       To the extent that benefit plans provide spousal benefits they must now provide the same benefits to same-sex spouses.
  3. Married same-sex couples should not have to wait for an open enrollment period to allow changes to health insurance coverage since the event of this Supreme Court decision makes the marriage of same-sex couples a qualifying event, just like newly married opposite sex couples.
  4. It is advisable to refer simply to “marriage” and “spouse” in school district policies and plans since there is no distinction under the law between same-sex and opposite-sex spouses.
  5. Obergefell does not address civil unions or domestic partnerships only marriages.

Obergefell resolved some of the issues that employers and same-sex couples previously faced with regard to taxes. It is likely that the federal government will be required to permit joint filing of federal tax returns (and state tax returns). These changes may affect school districts and their employees.

It is imperative that school districts review policies and plans to be certain there is no risk to the school district of a claim of discrimination or a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. MBM is available to provide further information or support as school districts navigate this new area of the law. If you have any questions or would like any clarifications, please contact Judy Shopp at js@mbm-law.net or at 412-242-4400 or Falco Muscante at fam@mbm-law.net or at 412-242-4400.

Alfred C. Maiello
Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.