By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. judge appeared sympathetic to a lesbian federal employee's bid to strike down a law denying health-insurance benefits to her spouse, in the first hearing since the Obama administration decided to quit defending the statute.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White heard two hours of arguments on Friday at a hearing on a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
"The court is faced with enforcing the equal protection clause in the context of a fundamental right - that is marriage," White said. The judge did not make any rulings from the bench.
Congress passed DOMA in 1996 and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. It prevents same-sex couples who are legally married in seven states and the District of Columbia from enjoying more than 1,000 federal benefits awarded to heterosexual married couples.
Karen Golinski has worked as a staff attorney for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco for 20 years.
She sued the U.S. government after it refused to enroll her spouse, Amy Cunninghis, on her federal family health insurance plan. The couple married during a five-month legal window in California before voters passed Proposition 8, a gay marriage ban.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice initially argued that DOMA prohibited Cunninghis from receiving the same benefits as she would receive if Golinski were a man.
Earlier this year, however, Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama called DOMA unconstitutional and said that while they would continue to enforce it, they would quit defending it in court.
In response, the U.S. House of Representatives - which is controlled by Republicans - stepped in to defend the law.
"Congress gets to draw the lines of which benefits it wants to give and has done so," said attorney Conor Dugan, who defended DOMA. But Golinski's attorneys and the federal government argued that DOMA violates the U.S. constitution.
"Congress gets to draw the lines, but it can't draw them when they're discriminatory and arbitrary," said Assistant Attorney General Tony West.
In anticipation of the hearing, White posed several questions to DOMA defenders.
"DOMA marks a unique departure from the recognition the federal government historically has afforded to state marital status determinations," White wrote. (Editing by Dan Levine and Todd Eastham)