The Respect for Marriage Act and the State of Marriage Equality in Georgia and Elsewhere in 2023

Eight years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges establishing marriage equality across the U.S. Even though marriage equality is the law of the land, gay and lesbian people still encounter many hurdles. If you’ve encountered illegal discrimination because of sexual orientation or your same-sex marriage, then you should contact an experienced Atlanta discrimination lawyer to help protect your rights.

A few months ago, the U.S. Congress last year took an important step in protecting gay and lesbian couples. The action occurred in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that, on its face, had nothing to do with marriage equality.

In June 2022, the court issued a ruling in the abortion case of Dobbs v. Whole Women’s Health. The court’s majority opinion addressed abortion rights, but Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion theorized that the notion of “substantive due process” is “demonstrably erroneous.” (Substantive due process is the legal concept underpinning many modern rights cases like Griswold v. Connecticut (contraception,) Lawrence v. Texas (same-sex intimate relations,)… and Obergefell.)

Partly in response to those developments, Congress passed the “Respect for Marriage Act,” which President Biden signed into law in December 2022. That statute says that all states must recognize same-sex marriages from other states. So, even if — hypothetically speaking — the Supreme Court overturned Obergefell tomorrow, the State of Georgia would have to recognize a same-sex from, say, New York or New Jersey.

That, of course, implicitly highlights an underlying problem. Without the marriage equality established by the Obergefell decision, the issue of same-sex marriage would revert back to state law and, in Georgia, the state statutes (as well as the state constitution) prohibit same-sex marriage. Changing that constitutional provision would mean obtaining a 2/3 vote in favor in the Georgia Senate, a 2/3 vote in favor in the House of Representatives, and a majority vote in favor among registered voters.

Currently, 35 states have statutes and/or constitutional provisions banning same-sex marriage. If the Obergefell ruling was not the law of the land, an Atlanta gay or lesbian couple seeking to marry would have to travel to a state like Illinois, Maryland, or Delaware, each of which is more than 400 miles from the Atlanta metro area. This, of course, places an especially onerous burden on lower-income gay and lesbian couples.

Same-Sex Marriage and Employment Discrimination

Gay and lesbian people face more threats than just this. For some, the decision to marry may come at the price of losing their jobs, especially if they worked for a religious employer. The case of one Middle Georgia music teacher is representative of what many go through.

The teacher alleged that starting with his first interview with a Macon Catholic in 2010, he was “upfront” about his sexuality. The school allegedly knew that he was gay and had a partner. The school nevertheless continued to renew the teacher’s contract each year. However, after the teacher informed the school in late 2013 about his plans for a summer 2014 wedding, things changed, and in May 2014, the school ended the teacher’s employment.

Ultimately, the teacher and the school resolved their case via a settlement.

In some circumstances, the law allows religious employers to take this kind of action under the protection of the free exercise of religion clause. To do so, the employee must be involved in a job that implicates some form of church ministry, which is why it’s called the “ministerial exception.” That includes people like teachers in religious schools or, for example, the music director in a parish church.

Religious employers cannot, however, discriminate based on sexuality if the worker isn’t involved in ministry work — say, for example, a school admin or a church maintenance custodian.

Discrimination is wrong and, often, also illegal. The knowledgeable Atlanta sexual orientation discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert are here to help when you’ve encountered misconduct that violates your rights. If you have questions about what you’ve experienced, contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation today.

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