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High court to consider taking gay marriage cases

Challenges focus on the Defense of Marriage Act

Karen Golinski (left), a federal employee, has sued to add her wife, Amy Cunninghis, to her health insurance plan.

Eric Risberg/associated Press

Karen Golinski (left), a federal employee, has sued to add her wife, Amy Cunninghis, to her health insurance plan.

SAN FRANCISCO — Like many newlyweds, Karen Golinski was eager for the financial fruits of marriage. Within weeks of her wedding, she applied to add her spouse to her employer-sponsored health care, a move that would save thousands of dollars a year.

Her ordinarily routine request is still being debated more than four years later, by a slew of federal lawmakers, the Obama administration, and possibly this week, the US Supreme Court.

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Because Golinski is married to another woman and works for the US government, her claim for benefits has morphed into a multilayered legal challenge to a 1996 law that prohibits the US government from recognizing unions such as hers.

The high court scheduled a closed-door conference for Friday to review Golinski’s case and four others — including one from Massachusetts — that also seek to overturn the US Defense of Marriage Act.

The purpose of the meeting is to decide which, if any, to put on the court’s schedule for arguments next year. In addition to Massachusetts, the other plaintiffs in the cases pending before the court include 13 couples and five widows and widowers.

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Earlier this year, the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the benefits section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it deprived gay couples the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual couples. That ruling came in two lawsuits, one filed by the Boston-based legal group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the other by Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The Defense of Marriage Act was overwhelmingly approved by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, but it has never been reviewed by the US Supreme Court.

A constitutional challenge to the law would carry economic and social consequences for gay, lesbian, and bisexual couples, who now are unable to obtain 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 that the high court will agree to hear at least one of the appeals, Lambda Legal chief Jon Davidson said.

The Supreme Court also is scheduled to discuss on Friday whether it should take two more long-simmering cases dealing with relationship recognition for same-sex couples.

One is an appeal of two lower-court rulings that struck down California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The other is a challenge to an Arizona law that made state employees in same-sex relationships ineligible for domestic partner benefits.

The last time the court confronted a gay rights case was in 2010, when the justices voted 5-4 to let stand lower court rulings holding that a California law school could deny recognition to a Christian student group that does not allow gay members.

Lynn Wardle, a Brigham Young University law professor who testified before Congress when lawmakers considered the Defense of Marriage Act, said he still thinks the law passes constitutional muster.

‘‘Congress has the power to define for itself domestic relationships, including defining relationships for purposes of federal programs,’’ Wardle said.

At the same time, he said, the gay rights landscape has shifted radically since 1996. ‘‘The politics are profound, and politics influence what the court does,’’ Wardle said.

Citing the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal Office of Personnel Management initially denied Golinski’s bid to enroll Cunninghis in medical coverage she had selected for herself and their son, now 10.

Golinski knew that her employer, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, had a policy prohibiting discrimination against gay workers, so she filed an employee grievance and won a hearing before the court’s dispute resolution officer, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

Kozinski ruled that Golinski was entitled to full spousal benefits, but federal officials ordered Golinski’s insurer not to process her application, prompting the chief judge to issue an opinion on her behalf.

After the government refused to budge, Golinski sued in January 2010.

The Department of Justice originally opposed Golinski in court but changed course last year after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder said they would no longer defend the law.

Federal Judge Jeffrey White handed Cunninghis and Golinski victory in February, ordering the US government to allow Golinski to enroll her wife in a family health plan.

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