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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Lesbian Couple Has Right to Benefits, Judge Rules

(CN) - An assistant federal public defender and her wife are entitled to federal health benefits despite state and federal laws banning same-sex marriage, a 9th Circuit judge ruled.

Alison Clark, who works for the federal public defender's office in Portland, Ore., and goes by "Tex," sued the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts after it denied her request for spousal health benefits last July.

Clark and her partner, Anna Campbell, were married in British Columbia in June 2012. Their marriage is not recognized by the state of Oregon or the federal government.

Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2004 defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Both Oregon's Measure 36 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) effectively ban gay marriage.

Clark argued that the administrative agency's response violated an employment dispute resolution plan for public defenders, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The complaint reached Judge Harry Pregerson, chair of the 9th Circuit's standing committee on federal public defenders, who sided with Clark in an unpublished opinion posted on Oregon Public Broadcasting's website.

"The only reason Clark was unable to make her spouse a beneficiary under the FEHB [Federal Employee Health Care Benefits] program was that, as a homosexual, she had a same-sex spouse," Pregerson wrote. "Therefore, the denial of Clark's request for spousal FEHB benefits was based on Clark's sexual orientation, and thus violates the plan's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The judiciary's administrative office said it based its decision on the state and federal gay marriage bans, which define a "spouse" as heterosexual.

But Pregerson said Oregon's Measure 36 "does not pass constitutional muster," and neither does DOMA.

"I can see no objective that is rationally related to banning same-sex marriages, other than the objective of denigrating homosexual relationships," Pregerson wrote.

He ordered the administrative office's director to submit Clark's benefits form to the appropriate insurer and to process any future requests "without regard to (1) the sex of the a listed spouse and (2) whether a validly executed same-sex marriage is recognized by a state."

Clark is entitled to "back pay and associated benefits" if the agency refuses, Pregerson concluded.

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