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Education Groups Issue Guide on Same-Sex Marriage and School Districts

A constitutional right to same-sex marriage is now the "law of the land," and that means school districts must provide spouses in such marriages the same benefits as those for opposite-sex couples, according to a new guide from three major education groups.

The guide from the National School Boards Association, the National Education Association, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, addresses Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark June 26 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared that all states must license and recognize same-sex marriages.

"Every policy and benefit that defines or refers to marriage or spouses in the application of federal benefits, state benefits, or benefits conferred by school district policy or collective-bargaining agreements are affected," says the guide, titled "Same-Sex Marriage: What the Obergefell Decision Means for School Districts."

The guide notes that the Supreme Court decision affects benefits in areas such as health insurance, retirement, general insurance, leave of absence, family and medical leave policies, collective-bargaining agreements, beneficiary designations, health-care spending accounts, dependent child care, COBRA benefits, and nepotism statutes, among others.

Many school districts grappled with these issues when the Supreme Court, in its 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor, struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

So, based on Windsor, employees were likely required to offer, for example, federal COBRA benefits for the extension of health insurance to an employee's same-sex spouse, and to children of the marriage.

"Obergefell should not change this," the guide says.

The guide says the Obergefell ruling is effective now, and districts should be consulting with their lawyers to determine implications for tax and FICA withholding. They should also be formally advising all employees of the change. And they should be reviewing and revising their policies, plan statements, and forms that implicate marriage.

For example, districts should use terminology that simply refers to "marriage" and "spouse," the guide says. 

"There is no distinction under the law between same-sex and opposite-sex spouses," it says.

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