NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- In a win for equality and the finances of gay couples, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that states cannot ban same-sex marriage.
In Obergefell v. Hodges, better known as the gay marriage case, the justices held that states cannot constitutionally ban couples from getting married on the basis of sexual orientation. This decision does not, as some have described it, create an actual right to gay marriage but rather establishes that states can’t discriminate between heterosexual and homosexual couples on this basis. Still, the decision heralds major financial boons for same-sex married couples.
Marriage confers thousands of benefits at the state and federal level, all of which same-sex couples will now be entitled to. Immediately states will have to begin budgeting for marriage tax credits and associated benefits to gay couples. Businesses and insurance companies will also have to begin to account for the additional married couples as well.
Health insurance, for many couples, will become one of the most immediate financial gains. Although many companies have already begun to make room for domestic partnerships, all gay couples will now be able to access a spouse’s family plan without fear of additional fines or taxes levied.
Social Security, retirement and estate planning will all now also become easier for couples, who can begin to make plans within the protections afforded by marriage. The law is written to consider married partners a unit in a way that simple co-habitating partners are not. Property can pass tax-free between married couples, Social Security benefits can pass between spouses and retirement benefits can more easily be shared.
In fact, taxes in general will become easier as couples can now transfer funds and property without any concerns about running afoul of income tax provisions (although as with all spouses, gay couples will now have to play the annual game of choosing between joint and single filing status).
On the other hand, gay couples will now have to start saving up for their weddings, which these days can cost about as much as a new car. So those tax breaks will probably come in handy.
State and local governments around the country will now be obligated to provide marriage licenses and benefits to same-sex couples, an issue that has already begun to create local unrest in the culture wars. In Colorado a bakery made the headlines when it got sued for refusing to cater a gay couple's wedding, and Indiana became famous after it passed a law allowing businesses the freedom to discriminate against homosexual couples without fear of reprisal.
These issues are virtually certain to become more common as states that have dug in their heels on gay marriage receive the federal commandment.
For today's Supreme Court decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a lengthy opinion that dove into the history of the issue, arguing that “the fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy.” Among them is a right to marry protected by the Constitution, which states cannot deny to anyone merely on the basis of sexual orientation.
“Four principles and traditions demonstrate that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples,” he wrote, before diving into an analysis that even turned the states’ own arguments on their head by finding procreation and child rearing an important consideration in favor of allowing gay marriage.
The decision finishes a process begun by the Court in 2013, when it set off a nationwide revolution in United States v. Windsor. Writing for the majority in that case, Justice Kennedy spoke of “an evolving understanding of equality” rooted in dignity as the basis for the court’s decision. Almost immediately, lower courts around the country took that language as a signal that the justices had swept away the last grounds for banning same sex marriage as a matter of equal protection, and began overturning state laws on the issue nationwide.
Since Windsor, the federal courts have extended a right to marry into 21 states, on top of the 16 that have made gay marriage legal by state action (either at the ballot box or a court ruling based on state law). A decision upholding marriage bans would have overturned these post-Windsor decisions, creating a state of confusion regarding how to strip rights from same-sex couples that have already gotten married.
In fact, it was this confusion which led many observers to anticipate the court’s ruling today after the justices declined to order local governments to stop handing out marriage certificates. It would have created what Professor Richard Friedman of the University of Michigan Law School called in a previous interview “a good deal of short term turmoil” as state officials tried to figure out how to unring the bell for thousands of marriages already conducted.
Fortunately states won’t have to deal with this issue. Instead the right to marriage will immediately be granted to couples in all of the remaining 13 states which have not previously done so.
Although the country has taken an intense interest in the issue of gay marriage in the wake of Windsor, the issue has been building for more than a decade. Writing his 2003 dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that once the Court had abandoned “the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality [as a] legitimate state interest,” laws against same sex marriage would be unable to survive even the most basic review.
It took twelve years but Scalia was proven right, over another objection.
With tradition and majoritarian sexual morality as impermissible arguments, the states focused their argument on promoting traditional families and procreation. In oral argument, Michigan’s attorney John Bursch argued that the government has an interest in encouraging couples who can have children, and once that child is born “keeping the couple bound to [it] forever.” This line of argument drew skepticism from many of the justices, who raised questions about how that logic fits with heterosexual couples who cannot or choose not to reproduce.
The argument ultimately failed to persuade the Court. "Precedent protects the right of a married couple not to procreate," Kennedy wrote in his opinion, "so the right to marry cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate."
This ultimate ruling was the least disruptive opinion that the Court could have issued coming on the heels of years of marriages conducted under rulings handed out from federal courts. In the long run the next question is how the country will adapt to an issue which has changed with breathtaking speed.
For today, however, the final word belongs to Justice Kennedy:
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."
-Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website A Wandering Lawyer.