U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland ruled on Thursday that the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law barring same-sex couples from receiving hundreds of privileges that include joint tax filing and sponsoring an immigrant spouse for a green card, violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Wilken also struck down a law prohibiting same-sex partners from receiving long-term health care through the California Public Employees Retirement System.
A group of same-sex couples represented by the Legal Aid Society had sued the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, for excluding partners of state employees from the health care plan. CalPERS cited DOMA as its reason.
Judge Wilken's decisions is the latest in a series of rulings finding the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and it is the first since President Barack Obama publicly affirmed his support for same-sex marriage. Obama has already signaled his opposition to DOMA, an 1996 law that restricts the federal definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman, by telling the U.S. Department of Justice to stop defending the law in court.
Judge: Ban Does Not Serve A Legtimate Government Interest
Contending that DOMA excludes gay men and women from the benefits of marriage because of animus towards gay men and lesbians and their relationships, rather than a defensible legal principle, Judge Wilkens wrote in her ruling that a ban on same-sex marriage does not serve a legitimate government interest.
Under equal protection jurisprudence, tradition is not a legally acceptable reason to prohibit a practice that historically has been the subject of social disapprobation, Wilkens wrote. Singling out same-sex spouses for exclusion from the federal definition of marriage amounts to a bare expression of animus on the basis of sexual orientation, she added.
After detailing a long history of moral condemnation and social disapprobation of same-sex couples that she said DOMA embodies, Wilkens set out the reasons why the legal arguments for a federal statute prohibiting same-sex marriage have become obsolete.
For instance, Wilkens noted the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision striking down a ban on sodomy, which established a precedent that social disapproval of homosexuality could not be invoked as a justification for laws burdening gay men and lesbians. She also rejected the explanation that same-sex couples never reproduce, noting that same-sex couples use various methods to conceive and adopt children.
The status quo has shifted since Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, with states passing laws that grant legal status to forms of same-sex relationships that range from domestic parternships to civil unions to, in seven states and the District of Columbia, marriage. That has produced a disconnect between state and federal law: while states have the authority to shape marriage law, a same-sex couple married in Vermont or New York is not recognized by the federal government.
DOMA marked a significant departure from federal deference to the states' authority in defining marriage, Wilkens wrote.
Wilkens also batted down the argument that DOMA encourages family stability and affirms raising children as the central purpose of marriage, writing that it carries no incentivizing effect for heterosexual couples to marry and have children.
There is no reasonable basis to believe that heterosexual couples are more inclined to marry and have children or to enter into a marriage after accidentally conceiving a child, due to this limiting federal definition enacted in 1996, she wrote, adding that child-rearing is not the core attribute of marriage.