Federal judge rules DOMA unconstitutional

A U.S. district judge in California ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and said the government should ignore the law. In the Feb. 22 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffery White also ordered that health benefits be provided to the wife of a lesbian federal court employee.

White’s ruling was the first since the Obama administration announced last year it would stop defending the law it considers discriminatory and unconstitutional.  The decision followed a 2010 ruling by a Massachusetts judge who also deemed DOMA unconstitutional. That ruling is now on appeal in the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. The recent ruling is expected to add momentum to an already moving case that is seeking to strike down the statute as discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation.

The decision was also a large setback for the conservative and so-called Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, a U.S. House of Representatives panel that is defending DOMA since the Obama administration dropped its defense.

White ordered the federal Office of Personnel Management to enroll the wife of Karen Golinski, a court employee, in the health-benefits program. DOMA prohibits the extension of federal benefits to same-sex couples and Golinski’s wife, Amy Cunninghis, has been 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 appointed 10 years ago by former president George W. Bush.

During the December hearings, lawyers defending the anti-gay law argued that it was enacted to protect traditional marriage and said there is some fluidity in the sexual orientation spectrum so being gay was not, “a defining and immutable characteristic.” However, White disagreed with that assertion and said “tradition alone” does not justify legislation that specifically targets and harms a minority group.

“The imposition of subjective moral beliefs of a majority upon a minority cannot provide a justification for the legislation. The obligation of the court is ‘to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code,'” White wrote in his ruling.

Lambda Legal, a gay rights group, applauded the ruling and staff attorney Tara Borelli said it was the end of DOMA.

“The Court recognized the clear fact that a law that denies one class of individuals the rights and benefits available to all others because of their sexual orientation violates the constitutional guarantee of equality embodied in the Fifth Amendment,” Borelli said. “The Court agreed with us that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should receive heightened scrutiny under the constitution. It then concluded that DOMA could not meet that standard, and that there was not even a rational justification to deny Karen Golinski the same spousal health-care benefits that her heterosexual co-workers receive.”

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