A judge on Wednesday declared the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and ordered the federal government to ignore the statute and provide health benefits to the wife of a lesbian federal court employee.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White was the first since the Obama administration announced a year ago that it would no longer defend a law it considers discriminatory and reflective of a long history of denying equal rights to gays and lesbians.
White ordered the federal Office of Personnel Management to enroll the wife of Karen Golinski, an attorney for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the health benefits program available to other employees of the federal judiciary. The Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the extension of federal benefits to same-sex spouses, and Golinski's wife, Amy Cunninghis, had been repeatedly denied coverage since the couple married in 2008.
"The court finds that DOMA, as applied to Ms. Golinski, violates her right to equal protection of the law … without substantial justification or rational basis," wrote White, who was named to the federal bench a decade ago by President George W. Bush.
White's ruling echoed that of a Massachusetts judge who in 2010 deemed parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, a case now on appeal before the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
The decision by White is expected to add momentum to the national campaign to get the statute struck down as unconstitutionally discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation.
It was also a setback for the conservative-dominated Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, the U.S. House of Representatives panel that intervened to defend the statute after Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said the administration would no longer do so.
At a December hearing in White's San Francisco courtroom, lawyers for the five-member House panel argued that the Defense of Marriage Act was enacted to protect and nurture traditional opposite-sex marriage. They also submitted evidence of "some fluidity" in the commitment of homosexuals to that identity, urging the judge to reconsider 9th Circuit rulings that homosexuality is "a defining and immutable characteristic."
In his 43-page ruling, White said "tradition alone" doesn't justify legislation that targets a vulnerable social group.
"The obligation of the court is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code," White wrote. "The 'ancient lineage' of a classification does not render it legitimate."
The lead attorney for the congressional group defending the statute, former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, did not respond to calls or emails inquiring whether the group would appeal White's ruling. That appeal would go through the 9th Circuit, where Chief Judge Alex Kozinski has already ruled in administrative orders that the federal government's refusal to provide benefits to Golinski's spouse violates her rights.
Gay rights advocates heralded White's ruling.
"This ruling, the first to come after the Justice Department announced it would no longer defend this discriminatory statute in court, spells doom for DOMA," said Tara Borelli, a staff attorney for the national gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal.