SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge in San Francisco ruled Wednesday that the U.S. government cannot deny health benefits to the wife of a lesbian court employee by relying on the 1996 law that bars government recognition of same-sex unions.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said that because the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex married couples, the government's refusal to furnish health insurance to Karen Golinski's wife is unjustified.
"The Court finds that DOMA, as applied to Ms. Golinski, violates her right to equal protection of the law ... by, without substantial justification or rational basis, refusing to recognize her lawful marriage to prevent provision of health insurance coverage to her spouse," White wrote in a 43-page decision that marks the third time in less than two years a federal court has declared the act unconstitutional.
Golinski, a staff lawyer for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has been trying to secure spousal benefits for her wife, Amy Cunninghis, since shortly after the couple got married during the brief window in 2008 when same-sex marriages were legal in California. Her boss, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, approved her request, but the Office of Personnel Management ordered Golinski's insurer not to process her application.
After Golinski sued, the Department of Justice originally opposed her in court but changed course last year after President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder said they would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act.
When White heard the case in December, the head of the Justice Department's civil division, Tony West, joined her lawyers from the gay rights legal group Lambda Legal in arguing on Golinski's behalf, leaving the job of defending DOMA to a lawyer hired by a House of Representatives group. The lawyers representing the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group convened by House Speaker John Boehner did not immediately respond to an email to their offices sent after business hours Wednesday.
Former speaker and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying White's ruling demonstrated "that the House is not united in this case, that the BLAG lawyers do not speak for Congress, and that BLAG's intervention remains a waste of taxpayer resources."
Wednesday's ruling is the latest in an unbroken string of judicial setbacks for the Defense of Marriage Act, which Congress approved when states first started considering allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married. The law defines marriage as a union between a man and woman, and prohibits the government from granting benefits such as Social Security and Medicaid to same-sex couples.
A federal judge in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, ruled in July 2010 that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define the institution. A year later, 20 of the 24 bankruptcy judges based in Los Angeles ruled that the act violated the civil rights of a married gay couple who were denied the right to file a shared bankruptcy plan.
Last week, the Obama administration said it was extending its decision to stop defending the law to issues affecting actively serving military personnel and veterans in same-sex relationships.
In ordering the government to allow Golinski to enroll her wife in a family health plan, White rejected all of the arguments the House group advanced in defense of DOMA, such as that it was necessary to foster stable unions among men and women, and for Congress to act slowly on an issue on which the public remains divided.
White's decision "acknowledges that DOMA violates the Constitution and that my marriage to Amy is equal to those marriages of my heterosexual colleagues," Golinski said. "This decision is a huge step toward equality."