by Matthew H. Parker
A series of amendments to Rhode Island law and the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision in United States v. Windsor have changed how most Rhode Island employers must treat same-sex married couples.
Under the amendments, which go into effect on August 1, anyone who is eligible to marry in Rhode Island will be able to marry any other eligible person “regardless of gender.” Also, Rhode Island will recognize valid same-sex marriages from other states.
The full effect of the amendments was unclear until the Supreme Court issued its Windsor decision, which declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. Before the ruling, it looked like Rhode Island employers would have to recognize same-sex marriages in cases governed by state law but would be able to avoid recognizing same-sex unions for benefits governed exclusively by federal law.
The amendments to Rhode Island law mean that same-sex spouses will be able to claim a marital exemption for Rhode Island estate taxes, qualify for “surviving spouse” state tax credits, and claim wage withholdings for state income taxes based on their marital status. Also, same-sex married couples will be entitled to the same employment benefits as opposite-sex married couples unless their employers are exempt from the legislation.
Because of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, both Rhode Island and federal law exempt certain religious employers from recognizing same-sex marriages. For example, Section 15-3-6.1(e) of the Rhode Island amendments exempts fraternal benefit or service organizations that (1) are “operated, supervised or controlled by a religious organization” or (2) have the stated purpose of “promotion, support or protection of a religious organization and [restrict their] membership to practicing members of that religious organization.”
Rhode Island law leaves the term “fraternal benefit or service organization” undefined. The exemption clearly lets religious organizations like the Knights of Columbus withhold benefits from employees’ same-sex spouses based on the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage, but it’s unclear whether the exemption will apply to other religious service institutions such as schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters.
Given that ambiguity, religious employers in Rhode Island should exercise caution when deciding to withhold benefits. Until the statute is clarified, employers that don’t fall directly within the exemption risk making themselves a test case if they withhold benefits from employees’ same-sex spouses.
Before the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling, Rhode Island employers that weren’t exempt from the amendments could have relied on the doctrine of federal preemption to avoid providing same-sex married couples benefits that are governed exclusively by federal law. For example, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code exclusively regulate retirement plans, cafeteria plans, and certain insurance plans. But now, federal law also recognizes same-sex marriage, meaning that most Rhode Island employers must offer the same benefits and tax treatment to all married employees, regardless of sexual orientation.
The Windsor decision gave more teeth to Rhode Island’s recognition of same-sex marriage. If a state recognizes same-sex marriages, the federal government will as well. Accordingly—at least in Rhode Island—most same-sex married couples won’t see a distinction between employment benefits that are governed by state law and those that fall under federal law.
For more information on the new state law, see “Gay marriage: what it means for Ocean State employers” in the June 2013 issue of Rhode Island Employment Law Letter.