Changes in Washington Are Unlikely to Affect Same-Sex Marriage in New York City

Empire State BuildingThe past few years have brought considerable changes in family law. New York enacted marriage equality statewide through legislation in 2011, while same-sex couples in many states gained the right to marry through state or federal court decisions. A 2013 Supreme Court decision paved the way for a 2015 decision that struck down laws across the country that limited the definition of marriage. As of late January 2017, a new administration has moved into the White House, and many in the federal government have bluntly stated their opposition to marriage equality. The law in New York seems unlikely to change without major political upheavals, since it was the result of legislation. In other parts of the country, however, people have already begun asking courts to review marriage rights.

In June 2011, the Marriage Equality Act became law in New York. The bill amended the Domestic Relations Law by adding two sections. Section 10-a states that a marriage cannot be found to be invalid solely because the two spouses are of the same sex. It further states that all laws, regulations, court decisions, and public policies related to marriage have the same legal effect for same-sex couples as for opposite-sex couples. Section 10-b grants exemptions to religious organizations and certain other private entities, stating that they are not legally obligated to accommodate events related to same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor was its first major decision regarding marriage equality. The plaintiffs were married in Canada and lived in New York. Their marriage was legally recognized in both locations, but after one spouse died, the other was denied federal estate tax exemptions under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This 1996 law excluded same-sex spouses from the federal definition of “marriage.” The court struck down DOMA as a violation of due process. This opened up the possibility of federal benefits for same-sex married couples around the country. Two years later, the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges cited the Fourteenth Amendment in striking down state laws excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry.

State laws that outright prohibit same-sex marriage are unconstitutional after Obergefell and therefore unenforceable. Changing this would require either another Supreme Court decision reversing or modifying the ruling or a constitutional amendment. Unless the hypothetical amendment restricts marriage rights nationwide, this would return the question to the states. At least one state, however, is already reviewing exactly how far Obergefell goes in restricting its ability to favor opposite-sex marriage.

A lawsuit filed in 2013 against the City of Houston, Texas and its mayor challenged a city ordinance extending employment benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees. The plaintiffs claimed that the ordinance violated a provision of the state constitution “declaring same-sex marriages against public policy and void, and prohibiting political subdivisions from giving effect to same-sex marriages from other states.” An appellate court dismissed the lawsuit in July 2015, citing Obergefell. While the Texas Supreme Court initially declined to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal, it reversed this decision in January 2017, and it will hear oral arguments in March.

A divorce case in New York City’s court system requires careful planning and detailed preparation. Consulting with an experienced divorce attorney can help you understand your rights and obligations. Ingrid Gherman has represented clients in New York City family law proceedings for more than 30 years. She can advocate on your behalf in and out of court. Contact us online or at (212) 941-0767 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

Residency Requirements for a New York Divorce, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, March 4, 2016

How Will the U.S. Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Affect Divorce and Other Family Law Matters in New York? New York Divorce Attorney Blog, July 8, 2015

Same-Sex Divorce Presents Unique Difficulties Due to Conflicts Between Laws in New York and Other States, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, April 28, 2015

Photo credit: Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.