By Bob Egelko -
In a victory for gay-rights advocates, a federal judge has ruled that state employees in California can sue for discrimination over the federal government's exclusion of their same-sex spouses from a long-term health care program.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland denied an Obama administration request to dismiss the suit Tuesday and signaled that she is likely to overturn provisions of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples.
A federal judge in Massachusetts declared the law unconstitutional in July, a ruling the administration is appealing.
President Obama has criticized the law, but his Justice Department is defending it in court. The administration says Congress was entitled to preserve the status quo in federal law while states debated the marriage issue.
But Wilken said the 1996 law actually changed the status quo by "robbing states of the power to allow same-sex civil marriages that will be recognized under federal law."
She also rejected arguments that the law's sponsors put forth in 1996, that the legislation was necessary to promote procreation and preserve heterosexual marriage.
"Marriage has never been contingent on having children," Wilken said, and denying federal benefits to same-sex couples "does not encourage heterosexual marriage."
She said sponsors' "moral rejection of homosexuality" had been obvious in congressional debate. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that bias against gays is an unconstitutional justification for passing a law, Wilken noted.
Her statements paralleled the reasoning of the Massachusetts decision and a ruling in August by Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco that struck down California's ban on same-sex marriage.
Although Wilken considered only whether the suit over health insurance could proceed, her ruling "gives a pretty clear direction as to where she's going," said Claudia Center, lawyer for three UCSF employees and their spouses who sued to overturn the law.
Center said she would ask Wilken to certify the suit as a class action on behalf of all state employees with same-sex spouses or domestic partners. The judge did not decide whether domestic partners could challenge the law.
The couples sued in April over the California Public Employees' Retirement System's refusal to enroll the spouses in a federally approved long-term care plan. State employees can buy coverage at below-market rates, use pretax dollars to pay premiums and deduct future benefits from their taxes.
The California agency has refused to sign up same-sex spouses because the Defense of Marriage Act denies federal tax benefits to any state that covers them.
The state agency, a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the ruling. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.