Federal Judge: DOMA Is Unconstitutional Because It Denies Insurance Benefits

May 25, 2012 - 3:45 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A judge in California has ruled that the federal law that prohibits recognition of same-sex unions is unconstitutional because it denies long-term health insurance benefits to legal spouses of state employees and retirees.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken also concluded Thursday that a section of the federal tax code that made the domestic partners of state workers ineligible for long-term care insurance similarly violates the civil rights of people in gay and lesbian relationships. Both laws were based on what she called "moral condemnation" of same-sex couples.

"Congress's restriction on state-maintained long-term care plans lacks any rational relationship to a legitimate government interest, but rather appears to be motivated by antigay animus," Wilken wrote in ordering the California Public Employees' Retirement System to allow current and former state employees to enroll their same-sex spouses and partners in the extended care plan.

Congress passed both laws that the Oakland, Calif.-based judge determined to be constitutionally suspect in 1996, when the gay rights movement was just beginning to push for the state and local benefits that come with marriage. She is the second federal judge in California this year to conclude that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the due process rights of legally married same-sex couples.

A San Francisco judge also declared the federal law unconstitutional in February in a separate case involving a federal court employee, who married during the brief period when same-sex marriages were legal in California, was not allowed to add her wife to her regular employer-sponsored health care plan. That ruling is under appeal and is scheduled to be heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September.

"Lesbian and gay couples are entitled to fair and equal treatment from the federal government," Elizabeth Kristen of Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, which sued the U.S. Treasury Department and California's pension plan two years ago on behalf of three same-sex couples. "Judge Wilken's ruling ensures that both same-sex spouses and registered domestic partners will be treated fairly with respect to the CalPERS long-term care insurance program."

Lawyers representing a House of Representatives committee that has taken on the job of defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court since the Obama administration said it no longer would did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Wilken said she would stay her decision in the event of an appeal.

The program to which the plaintiffs in the case Wilken decided are seeking access covers the cost of in-home care and other services for people who need help with basic daily tasks because of age, injury or chronic conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

In seeking to end their exclusion from the program, the same-sex couples had argued that state workers and retirees are allowed to enroll not only heterosexual husbands and wives, but siblings and step-siblings, nieces and nephews, in-laws and stepparents.

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Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com