Published July 31. 2012 5:00PM Updated August 01. 2012 4:25PM
A U.S. District Judge from Connecticut ruled Tuesday that the federal government's definition of marriage is unconstitutional, giving hope to a Waterford couple who were denied federal benefits.
Joanne Pedersen and Ann Meitzen, longtime partners who were married in 2008 after Connecticut became the third state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They said in a phone interview that they are thrilled with Judge Vanessa L. Bryant's decision, which they called "another stepping stone" on the path toward gaining equal protection under the law.
In a 104-page decision, Bryant, who sits in Hartford, ruled that the provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that limits marriage to opposite sex couples violates the Fifth Amendment right to equal protection. Bryant wrote in the decision that the court found "no conceivable rational basis for the provision."
The marriage act had blocked Pedersen and Meitzen from enjoying the full benefits of their relationship, the suit claims. Pedersen, a retired civilian worker for the Navy, applied to have Meitzen added to her health insurance and was rejected because they are the same gender.
"We followed step by step and were turned down at every opportunity," Pedersen said.
Meitzen, who retired in April from her social work job at a nonprofit organization, said she suffers from a chronic lung condition and that maintaining health insurance coverage through COBRA costs more than 58 percent of her Social Security income.
"If I could be on Joanne's health insurance, it would mean a great deal for me," Meitzen said.
The federal lawsuit, filed in 2010, involves six married same-sex couples and a widower from three states — Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont — that have legalized gay marriage. The plaintiffs joined together after all had been denied benefits. On Tuesday, Judge Bryant granted a motion for summary judgment, effectively ending the lawsuit at the U.S. District Court level.
Pedersen and Meitzen said they were on a conference call Tuesday with attorneys from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which is studying the decision in anticipation of the next step.
"It means that we won this round, but they can still appeal," Meitzen said.
Courts across the country have made similar rulings, and the issue eventually may be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Whether or not things go to the Supreme Court is up in the air," Meitzen said. "The Supreme Court chooses the cases it wants to hear. We won on every level. We've waited a long time for this decision."
David Christopher Nelson of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Hartford, who defended the case, could not be reached for comment.
According to court filings, the Department of Justice said that as of last year, it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act as applied to legally married couples, but that federal departments and agencies would continue to comply with it unless and until it is repealed by Congress or there is a definitive court ruling.
In its court filings, the government had argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage in some but not all states would result in the inconsistent distribution of federal benefits.
In rejecting the government's argument, Bryant noted that application of benefits already is inconsistent from state to state.
"Prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage by any state, the eligibility requirements for heterosexual marriages varied pursuant to the laws of each state, for example by age at which individuals may marry without parental consent," Bryant's ruling reads.