A district court judge ruled Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act discriminated against married same sex couples and violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996 and Section 3 of the law, which the case challenged, defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. It prohibited legally married same sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

Proponents of the law said it upheld a definition of marriage that was embedded in the country's history and tradition. But Judge Jeffery White of the District Court for the Northern District of California, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, rejected that line of argument.

"The argument that the definition of marriage should remain the same for the definition’s sake is a circular argument, not a rational justification," Judge Jeffery White wrote in his decision. "Simply stating what has always been does not address the reasons for it. The mere fact that prior law, history, tradition, the dictionary and the Bible have defined a term does not give that definition a rational basis, it merely states what has been."

Lambda Legal and Morrison & Foerster LLP brought the case on behalf of Karen Golinski, a federal court employee denied spousal health coverage for her wife.

“This ruling, the first to come after the Justice Department announced it would no longer defend this discriminatory statute in court, spells doom for DOMA,” said Tara Borelli, staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles. “The Court recognized the clear fact that a law that denies one class of individuals the rights and benefits available to all others because of their sexual orientation violates the constitutional guarantee of equality embodied in the Fifth Amendment."

"The Court agreed with us that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should receive heightened scrutiny under the constitution," Borelli added. "It then concluded that DOMA could not meet that standard, and that there was not even a rational justification to deny Karen Golinski the same spousal health care benefits that her heterosexual co-workers receive.”

After Obama directed the Department of Justice to no longer defend Section 3 of the law, the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) voted along party lines to direct the House General Counsel to defend it in court. The five-member advisory group has the authority to instruct the non-partisan office of the House General Counsel to take legal action on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"BLAG argues, but does not explain how denying marriage benefits only to same sex couples will somehow make marriage between opposite sex couples better," White said in his ruling. "The proffered justification may derive from strongly-held religious or fundamentally traditional beliefs, but still does not provide a legally recognizable rational basis for sustaining a law that actively discriminates against legally married couples. The exclusion of same sex couples from the federal definition of marriage does nothing to encourage or strengthen opposite sex marriages."

Photo credit: Nikolai Alekseev

[Ed. note: Updated for clarity.]