On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued two decisions relating to same-sex marriage. One of the decisions relates to California Proposition 8 (Prop 8) in which voters amended the California state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The United States Supreme Court did not rule on the issues related to the appeal and instead determined that the private citizens who sought to enforce Prop 8 did not have standing. As a result, the lower court ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional remains. The other decision relates to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA was passed in 1996. Under DOMA, same sex-marriage was not recognized. However, the United States Supreme Court struck down provisions of DOMA as unconstitutional. As a result of this ruling, federal benefits are now available for same-sex, married couples.
As a result of these decisions, there has been a lot of discussion regarding the implications on same-sex marriage. Some people incorrectly believe that same-sex marriage is legal as a result of the DOMA ruling. Individual states are still free to determine the definition of marriage and whether they will legally allow same-sex marriage. In those states where same-sex marriage is legal, those married couples who were not previously eligible for federal benefits are now eligible. Those federal benefits are substantial and include tax, health and retirement benefits.
What do these rulings mean to you if you are a resident of Pennsylvania? Same-sex marriage is not legal in Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court rulings do not change that. While same-sex couples cannot marry in Pennsylvania, they can, however, marry in other states in which same-sex marriage is legal and then be eligible for federal benefits. However, unlike heterosexual married couples, Pennsylvania does not recognize the marriage so the couple is not eligible for state benefits as a married couple. In the event that the marriage leads to divorce, the couple cannot obtain a divorce in Pennsylvania. Often, the couple is stuck remaining married as there are residency requirements before seeking a divorce in a state that does recognize same-sex marriages. Usually it is not possible for the couple to meet these requirements, especially where one partner does not want the divorce.
As to what decisions the Pennsylvania legislature makes regarding the future legality of same-sex marriage, we will have to wait and see. For now, it does not appear likely that same-sex marriage will be legally recognized in Pennsylvania. There is currently a state law banning gay marriage in Pennsylvania. That law would have to be overturned and new laws permitting same-sex marriage would have to be enacted before both same-sex marriage and divorce are legally recognized in our Commonwealth. Stay tuned for state reactions to the Supreme Court rulings. Many state legislatures are in recess for the summer so additional feedback may not be available until the fall.