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Judge rules denying benefits to federal employees' same-sex spouses is discriminatory

Chief Judge James Ware of the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website] on Tuesday declared that the denial of insurance benefits to the same-sex spouse of a federal court employee is discriminatory [San Francisco Chronicle report]. Specifically, Ware ruled that the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) [official website] had discriminated against law clerk Christopher Nathan when it denied his request to enroll his male spouse in the federal government's health care plan. While the AOC contended that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text; JURIST news archive] bars federal marital benefits to same-sex couples and thus Nathan had to be turned down, Ware reasoned that denying insurance benefits based on sexual orientation and gender violated the federal court's guarantee of a "discrimination-free workplace." Because the judge conceded that he had no power to force the AOC to provide the insurance coverage, he ordered the chief clerk of the Northern District's San Francisco court to reimburse Nathan for the past and future costs of buying insurance for his husband, Thomas Alexander. Nathan and Alexander were married in 2008 after the Supreme Court of California [official website] ruled that a same-sex marriage ban violated the state constitution [JURIST report], and applied for the government's health insurance plan last year after California voters approved Proposition 8 [text; JURIST news archive] to overturn the high court's decision.

Same-sex marriage [JURIST backgrounder] remains a controversial topic in California. In February, Judge Jeffrey White, also of the Northern District of California, made a similar ruling [text, PDF] when he found that DOMA is unconstitutional when used as a method to deny a lesbian federal employee insurance benefits for her spouse. In particular, White opined that DOMA "violates [the employee's] right to equal protection of the law under the Fifth Amendment to the [US] Constitution by, without substantial justification or rational basis, refusing to recognize her lawful marriage to prevent provision of health insurance coverage to her spouse." Also in February, proponents of Proposition 8 requested a new hearing [petition, PDF] before the full US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website]. The request came after a three-judge panel for the circuit voted 2-1 to overturn the voter-approved law [JURIST report], finding that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder].

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