SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California public employees can sue the government for not allowing them to enroll same-sex spouses in a long-term health insurance program under the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal judge ruled.
Three gay and lesbian couples sued the Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service, California Public Employees Retirement System and their respective heads last April after they were barred from enrolling in CalPERS' long-term care program.
The Defense of Marriage Act, which passed in 1996, prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
"A state cannot allow same-sex couples to participate in its long-term care plan if it wishes the plan to qualify for favorable tax treatment" under DOMA, the ruling from California's northern district states.
CalPERS had said it had "no choice but to follow federal tax law," the ruling continues, quoting the state retirement agency's answer to the employees' complaint.
The Obama administration challenged the suit, claiming that DOMA preserves the marriage definition status quo, thereby advancing a legitimate government interest.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken rejected the argument and took issue with section three of the law, which sets federal definitions of "spouse" and "marriage" to exclude same-sex couples.
"Section three of DOMA, however, alters the status quo because it impairs the states' authority to define marriage, by robbing states of the power to allow same-sex civil marriages that will be recognized under federal law," Wilken wrote.
The three couples suing the government had legally married during the window of time that California had legalized same-sex marriage before the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, which amended the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage.
In denying the government's motion to dismiss, Wilken echoed Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's arguments for declaring California's gay marriage ban unconstitutional in August 2010.
"The exclusion of same-sex couples from the federal definition of marriage does not encourage heterosexual marriages," Wilken wrote. "Furthermore, the preservation of resources does not justify barring some arbitrarily chosen group of individuals from a government program. Nor does moral condemnation of homosexuality provide the requisite justification for the DOMA's section three."
The couples' motion to certify a class action on behalf of all state employees and their same-sex spouses will be heard in February.
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