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November 26, 2012

Benefits fight brings lesbian couple to high court

SAN FRANCISCO — Like a lot of newlyweds, Karen Golinski was eager to enjoy the financial fruits of marriage. Within weeks of her wedding, she applied to add her spouse to her employer-sponsored health care plan.

Her ordinarily routine request still is being debated more than four years later, and by the likes of former attorneys general, a slew of senators, the Obama administration and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

Because Golinski is married to another woman and works for the U.S. government, her claim for benefits has morphed into a multi-layered legal challenge to a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing unions like hers.

The high court has scheduled a closed-door conference for Friday to review Golinski’s case and four others that also seek to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Bill Clinton. The purpose of the meeting is to decide which, if any, to put on the court’s schedule for arguments next year.

The outcome carries economic and social consequences for gay, lesbian and bisexual couples, who now are unable to access Social Security survivor benefits, file joint income taxes, inherit a deceased spouse’s pension or obtain family health insurance.

“It’s pretty monumental and it’s an honor,” said Golinski, a staff lawyer for the federal appeals court based in San Francisco who married her partner of 23 years, Amy Cunninghis, during the brief 2008 window when same-sex marriages were legal in California.

The federal trial courts that heard the cases all ruled the act violates the civil rights of legally married gays and lesbians. Two appellate courts agreed, making it highly likely the high court will agree to hear at least one of the appeals, Lambda Legal Executive Director Jon Davidson said.

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