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Judge orders compensation for gay couple denied benefits

November 18, 2009 | 11:15 am

A federal judge today ordered compensation for a Los Angeles couple denied spousal benefits by the federal government because they are gay men.

U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt deemed the denial of healthcare and other benefits to the spouse of federal public defender Brad Levenson to be a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of due process and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which is prohibited by California state law.

Levenson married his longtime partner, Tony Sears, on July 12, 2008, during the five-month period when same-sex marriage was legal in California. A ballot measure, Proposition 8, was passed a year ago defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Reinhardt, who is the federal judge responsible for resolving employee disputes in the Federal Public Defenders office within the 9th Circuit, had earlier ordered the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to process Levenson's application for spousal benefits for Sears. The federal government's Office of Personnel Management stepped in to derail the enrollment, however, citing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriage for the purpose of federal benefits or programs.

Levenson appealed, seeking either an independently contracted benefits package for his spouse or payment of the equivalent value of the coverage denied. Reinhardt ordered the latter, based on a "back pay" provision in the law covering federal defense lawyers' employment.

"Considering that the federal government won't give Tony the equal benefits package of other spouses, we are very pleased with this decision," said Levenson. "Is it equal treatment? No. Is it a good remedy? Yes. And we are appreciative of the judge's order."

Levenson said he and Sears have been keeping track of the costs of insuring Sears independently and estimate the back pay and future compensation will amount to thousands of dollars each year.

The judge's order is expected to resolve the injustice Reinhardt has cited in previous orders in Levenson's case. But it also recognizes the status quo of federal government rejection of gay marriage under the Defense of Marriage Act. Several other challenges by those denied federal benefits, like filing joint tax returns, are making their way slowly through the federal courts.

The Obama administration has spoken out against what it sees as a discriminatory policy toward gay spouses of federal employees but Atty. Gen. Eric Holder has also said his office is obliged to defend the practice as long as the Defense of Marriage Act remains law.

-- Carol J. Williams

Use The Times' interactive map to track changes in rights for same-sex couples in the U.S. since 2000

Click to view Times interactive map on gay marriage

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