In a ruling that could lift same-sex couples across the country toward equality in the eyes of the U.S. government, a federal judge on Wednesday declared it unconstitutional to deny certain health insurance benefits to a Bay Area couple just because they are lesbians.

The ruling out of San Francisco was one of the first on the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, since the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the 16-year-old law one year ago. DOMA prevents legally married same-sex couples, like the 18,000 couples who legally married in California before Proposition 8, from receiving the myriad federal benefits granted to heterosexual married couples.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White weighed in on the federal law after Karen Golinski -- a 49-year-old lawyer in San Francisco -- challenged it when she was denied the right to include her wife, Amy Cunninghis, under the family health plan offered by her employer, the federal court system.

After 3½ years of legal wrangling, White ruled Wednesday that DOMA was unconstitutional, and that Golinski should have the right to include her wife in her family health insurance plan.

A group of House Republicans supporting DOMA have previously vowed to take cases like Golinski's all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Golinski case is expected to be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where, coincidentally, Golinski works.


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"As it winds its way through the courts, DOMA will, I hope, be ruled unconstitutional," Golinski said, "and that gay and lesbian people will be treated the same way as married heterosexual people."

Tara Borelli, her attorney, said three other major DOMA cases supported by gay and lesbian rights groups are still pending in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively. But there are many other low-profile cases, as well, and judges have ruled three times in the last two years that DOMA was unconstitutional.

Though the decision in this case isn't binding and is set to be appealed, Borelli said it could serve as a persuasive argument for judges around the country who prepare to rule on other DOMA cases. The issue could ultimately wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is a really important step in striking down DOMA," said Borelli, a Los Angeles-based attorney for Lambda Legal, a civil rights law group for gays and lesbians. "We think DOMA's days are numbered."

DOMA applied to health insurance in this case because the federal government is Golinski's employer. After she was refused benefits under Golinski's plan, Cunninghis purchased outside health insurance, an increasingly costly disadvantage for the family.

The law affects legally married same-sex couples in California and other states when it comes to the 1,000-plus federal issues pertaining to marriage, such as federal tax filings, Medicaid and Social Security.

Paul Clement, the attorney for the House group defending DOMA -- called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group -- did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In previous arguments, the Republican group maintained, among other things, that same-sex couples were not prepared to raise children. Golinski and Cunninghis, who have been together more than two decades, have an 8-year-old son. The group also argued that Congress should maintain the tradition of opposite-sex marriages, defend "traditional notions of morality" and be cautious with social diversity issues while individual states work them out.

But White rejected all those notions, saying there is no scientific evidence to support the argument that same-sex couples can't raise children and that waiting out the issue would be dangerous.

"Congress cannot, like an ostrich, merely bury its head in the sand and wait for danger to pass," White wrote in the 43-page ruling, "especially at the risk of permitting continued constitutional injury upon legally married couples."

Attorneys for the Department of Justice handling the case referred questions to the department's public affairs unit, which would only say Wednesday that they were "reviewing" the judge's ruling.

Though initially opposed to the case, Attorney General Eric Holder one year ago Thursday announced the Obama administration would no longer defend the government in DOMA cases. That prompted House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, of California, to defend the law by hiring an outside attorney, against the wishes of Democrats who praised Wednesday's ruling.

"Today, we celebrate an extraordinary moment in our nation's history, and we pledge to continue fighting -- in the courts, in state legislatures, and in Congress -- until DOMA is repealed," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705.