On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled marriage is aconstitutionally protected right for all Americans, ensuringsame-sex couples could legally marry in all 50 states.

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Related: 15 best cities for LGBT seniors

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The ruling in the case, Obergefell vs. Hodges, said the 14thAmendment's Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause gavesame-sex couples the same right to marriage as anyone else.

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The issue had been politically divisive for years; however, foremployers and HR departments, the ruling simplified benefitsadministration in many ways.

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Employers with sites in different states no longer have to havedifferent policies depending on whether or not same-sex marriagewas legal in a specific jurisdiction. However, challenges aroundsame-sex couples still remain for employers—most notably in thequestion of whether companies offer benefits to domesticpartners.

The case that made same-sex marriagelegal

The Obergefell in this case was James Obergefell, who traveledwith his partner, John Arthur, to Maryland in 2013 to marry. At thetime, Maryland recognized same-sex marriages; the couple's homestate of Ohio did not.

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Related: How much has same-sex marriage changed employeebenefits?

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Arthur was terminally ill with ALS, and sought to haveObergefell designated as his surviving spouse. Other cases, onefrom Ohio, one from Michigan, and two each from Kentucky andTennessee, were merged with the Obergefell case, which eventuallybecome known as Obergefell vs. Hodges (Hodges was the headof Ohio's health department at the time the case appeared beforethe Supreme Court).

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In 2015, when the Supreme Court took up the case, same-sexmarriage was legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.Previous court cases had led to rulings allowing states to maketheir own decision on whether to ban same-sex marriage or allowit.

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Obergefell vs. Hodges was argued before the SupremeCourt on April 28, and the Justices decided in a 5-4 ruling thatsame-sex marriage bans were a violation of the Equal ProtectionClause and the Due Process Clause in the 14th Amendment of theConstitution.

Validating workplace trends

In many ways, the Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling simplyvalidated a trend which was already developing. Family-relatedissues such as work/life balance and paid maternal leave are justtwo of many areas where employers have been rapidly expandingbenefits in order to retain and attract workers. Policies thatcovered spouses and domestic partners were already common amongmany employers.

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Related: 4 steps businesses can take to be inclusive oftransgender employees

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“In large part, the market was heading that way anyways,especially for large employers,” says Todd A. Solomon, a benefitsspecialist and partner at McDermott Will & Emery. Without apatchwork of laws in different states, employers could set onepolicy for all employees.

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“People were pleased with the ease of administration [after theruling],” he says. “It was much simpler from an HRperspective.”

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According to Tami Simon, managing director of Conduent HRServices' knowledge resource center, businesses in the U.S. haveadapted relatively well to Obergefell vs. Hodges.

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“Change generally requires a period of adjustment and thissituation was no different,” she says. “Employee communications,plan documents, and payroll administration were some of the itemsthat needed adjustment for the changes resulting from thisdecision. However, employers who were monitoring these issues andunderstood the implications were, for the most part, prepared.”

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Simon also notes the Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling willaffect more than just health insurance benefits. “Two areas thathave fostered a bit more discussion are adoption benefits andin-vitro fertilization,” she says. “Both benefits relate tosame-sex couples and parental rights. These are sensitive issueswhere the laws are still evolving.”

Remaining concern: domestic partnerships

Since the ruling, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), one of theleading organizations to battle for legalizing same-sex marriage,has expressed concerns about how domestic partners are covered,especially in the 28 states which do not have laws protecting LGBTrights.

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The campaign is calling for employers to offer benefits to bothmarried partners and domestic partners. HRC officials say thathaving to apply for a public marriage license in states withoutlegal protections can effectively “out” a couple who may becomfortable with an employer knowing their status, but may havereason to fear discrimination from other sources.

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“Marriage is now the law of the land, but other rights are notthe same for LGBT employees across the country,” says Beck Bailey,deputy director of employee engagement at HRC. “From ourperspective, the domestic partnership benefits are importantbecause same-sex couples are facing risks that different-sexpartners do not.”

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Related: Employers expect increases in LGBT discriminationclaims

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HRC publishes a Corporate Equality Index every year; a reportwhich rates businesses on their treatment of LGBT employees,consumers and investors. The 2017 report notes next year it willbegin requiring companies to offer domestic partnership benefits inorder to get a perfect score.

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“LGBT Americans can get legally married, but remain at risk ofbeing denied services for who they are or risk being fired simplyfor getting married and wearing their wedding ring to the officethe next day,” the report says.

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“Lacking protections based on sexual orientation and genderidentity through federal and consistent state law, it remains legalto discriminate against LGBT individuals in employment, housing andaccess to public places, federal funding, credit, education andjury service.”

SHRM sees increase in coverage of same-sexspouses

The Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) latestbenefits survey shows a continued trend toward coverage of same-sexspouses, says Nancy Hammer, senior government affairs policycounsel for the group.

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“From 2014 to 2016, we've seen a large increase in coverage ofboth opposite- and same-sex spouses,” she says. “A gap stillexists: 95 percent of companies offer to opposite-sex couples; 85percent offer coverage to same-sex couples.

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“We're not sure why there's still that gap—we didn't ask thatquestion,” Hammer says. But, she adds the lack ofanti-discrimination laws in some states might be a factor, just asHRC suggests. “It might be attributable to the fact that in somejurisdictions, sexual orientation is not a protected class. Thatmay result in some employers not offering [benefits] to same-sexspouses.”

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Hammer says there may also simply be a compliance gap, assmaller employers play catch-up with both the law and HR trends.She adds the SHRM surveys do not show employers dropping domesticpartnership coverage after the Obergefell vs. Hodgesruling. “That surprised me, but it may just be that once you offera benefit, it's hard to remove it,” she says.

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“Perhaps employers are continuing to think that this is a way toattract the kind of employees they want. They're seeing that thosebenefits still have a real value in the workplace.”

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