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Health Coverage, Family Leave Among Many Benefits Affected by Supreme Court's DOMA Decision

Health Coverage, Family Leave Among Many Benefits Affected by Supreme Court's DOMA Decision

June 27, 2013 — The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act could have a host of effects on health care and other benefits, NBC News reports.

Because of DOMA, married same-sex couples could not access more than 1,000 federal programs and benefits that refer to marital status, including tax-exemptions for employer-sponsored health insurance, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and military benefits for spouses (Arkin, NBC News, 6/26).

In the majority opinion -- written by Justice Anthony Kennedy -- the justices ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates a person's Fifth Amendment right to equal liberty (McCloskey/Carroll, Stars and Stripes, 6/26). Kennedy wrote, "By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute" violates the Constitution (Savage, "Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 6/26).

The justices noted that states have long had the responsibility of regulating and defining marriage, and some have chosen to permit same-sex marriages. They wrote that DOMA discriminates against same-sex couples who are legally married by refusing to recognize state-sanctioned same-sex marriages.

Benefits Could Vary State to State

The justices noted that the ruling only applies to same-sex couples who are legally married (Howe, SCOTUSblog, 6/26). Thus, only couples who are married and living in one of at least 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal will become eligible for the full range of spousal benefits they have been denied.

The issue is more "murky" for married same-sex couples living in states that prohibit same-sex marriage, according to Fred Sainz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. "Different federal programs have different standards," Sainz said, noting that a couple who was legally married in one state but moved to a state that doesn't recognize the marriage likely will "receive some benefits and ... won't receive others" (NBC News, 6/26).

Military Benefits Affected

Prior to leaving his office, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a memo that said if the Supreme Court were to strike down DOMA, "it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words 'spouse' and 'marriage' without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of their sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be given full military benefits."

After the ruling was released, a DOD spokesperson said the department will begin reviewing its policies and making appropriate changes.

However, there still are several hurdles to overcome before the policy can be fully changed, such as altering the military's personnel system to allow same-sex spouses to register, according to David McKean -- director of government affairs and policy for Outserve-SLDN, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian military members.

In addition, McKean noted that the Supreme Court's ruling on DOMA did not invalidate a law governing the Department of Veterans Affairs, which defines a spouse as "a person of the opposite sex who is a wife or husband" (Stars and Stripes, 6/26).