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DOMA Ruled Unconstitutional by 2nd Federal Judge

By Bob Egelko on SF Gate.com

The government’s denial of all federal benefits to same-sex married couples is an irrational and unconstitutional act of discrimination, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, a step toward a likely Supreme Court test of the law known as the Defense of Marriage Act.

DOMA is based on unfounded assumptions about marriage and the suitability of gays and lesbians as parents and was enacted in 1996 by a Congress avid to show its disapproval of homosexuality, said U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco.

He quoted numerous statements by backers of the act during congressional debate over it, including one by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., that “the moral and spiritual survival of this nation” were at stake. Another supporter, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. – who has since turned against DOMA – said in 1996 that marriage was “under assault by homosexual extremists.”

The law “treats gay men and lesbians differently on the basis of their sexual orientation” without any legal basis, said White, an appointee of former President George W. Bush. “The imposition of subjective moral beliefs of a majority on a minority cannot provide a justification.”

His ruling is the second in the nation to declare the law unconstitutional, and the first since President Obama abandoned defense of DOMA a year ago. It adds momentum to an issue that could bring the question of same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The law, signed by President Bill Clinton, denies joint tax filing, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration sponsorship and hundreds of other federal marital rights to same-sex spouses.

A federal judge in Massachusetts ruled the law unconstitutional in July 2010, a decision now under review by a federal appeals court in Boston. White’s ruling is likely to be appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

It comes on the heels of a Ninth Circuit ruling Feb. 7 that declared unconstitutional California’s Proposition 8 of 2008, which outlawed same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, Prop. 8’s sponsors asked the full court for a rehearing.

After Obama switched sides and backed DOMA’s opponents, the law’s defense was taken over by lawyers appointed by House Republican leaders.

They were unavailable for comment. But in arguments before White, they argued that DOMA was justified by tradition, by Congress’ power to limit federal spending, and by the government’s “interest in maintaining the link between marriage and children.”

White’s ruling noted that tradition was used to defend bans on interracial marriage, and said congressional spending power could not be used to single out a vulnerable minority. White also said excluding same-sex couples from the federal definition of marriage “does nothing to encourage or strengthen opposite-sex marriage.”

Before DOMA, the judge noted, the federal government had allowed each state to define legal marriages when deciding whether a couple was eligible for federal benefits.

The 1996 law thus represents “a stark departure from tradition and a blatant disregard of the well-accepted concept of federalism in the area of domestic relations,” White said.

He also said gays and lesbians, because of historical persecution continuing political vulnerability, are entitled to the same legal protections against discriminatory laws as racial minorities.

The suit was filed by Karen Golinski, a federal court attorney in San Francisco who was denied family insurance coverage for her wife, Amy Cunninghis, because of DOMA. The two were married in California in 2008 before Prop. 8 passed.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. begelko@sfchronicle.com

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