How will recent Supreme Court gay rights decisions affect Virginians?

In June of 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States released decisions in two controversial cases, one putting into question the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and one challenging a California law better known as "Proposition 8" (or "Prop 8") that prohibited same-sex marriage in the state. The Court overturned Prop 8 and declared that portions of DOMA violate the equal rights of legally married same-sex couples by preventing them from taking advantage of federal benefits and credits afforded to similarly situated heterosexual couples.

Little guidance to be found

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's landmark DOMA decision didn't define how states should interpret and implement the remaining provisions of DOMA when necessary. Nor did the Court provide guidance about the legal treatment of same-sex couples in states like Virginia where entering into a same-sex marriage or civil union is expressly prohibited by statute and where marital rights extend only to heterosexual couples.

President Obama has provided some clarity of the reach of the Court's decision as it pertains to DOMA. A statement issued by the Obama administration's Office of Personnel Management issued orders to federal benefits administrators and insurance carriers that federally administered benefits (like Social Security survivor benefits) and sizable tax credits will only extend to legally married same-sex couples, and not those who have entered into civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Since Virginia has only limited legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the issue of DOMA being overturned has a much smaller impact here than it does for citizens of Maryland, Minnesota and other places where gay marriage is now legal. The state does recognize both domestic partnerships and cohabitation agreements, though, and they can be crafted to address a wide range of issues that could affect same-sex couples, including "spousal" support and asset division.

The next fight

Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender advocacy group Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLUV) filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging the validity of Virginia's gay marriage ban, specifically the "Marshall-Newman Amendment." The suit is expected to last several years, but could result in sweeping changes to the way the state perceives same-sex marriages.

The Lambda Legal/ACLU action comes just weeks after an individual gay couple seeking to marry in Virginia filed suit when their marriage license application was denied. There is no word as to if that couple will be dropping their individual suit and joining the larger class action also seeking marriage equality in the state.

Do you have questions about how the rights of gay and lesbian couples in Virginia might have changed following the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions? Are you interested in learning more about legal steps that might be needed for same-sex couples who cannot legally marry (for example, having a non-biological parent formally adopt a child parented by his or her partner)? For more information about these and other family-related questions, seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney in your area.