Gay California couple challenges federal marriage act

The Sacramento BeeJune 13, 2011 

MAGALIA — It was not the proudest moment of their married life.

When Brenda and Lynda Ziviello-Howell found themselves in financial trouble earlier this year, they filed for joint bankruptcy as spouses.

Not so fast, said the U.S. Trustee, the federal agency that oversees such cases.

Just like that, the Ziviello-Howells found themselves in the thick of an ongoing battle over the legal rights of gay married couples.

In the eyes of the state of California, the Butte County women and 18,000 other same-sex couples who married during a brief window of opportunity in 2008 are entitled to all the joint benefits that go with their status. Four other states and the District of Columbia also recognize gay marriage.

But the federal government does not, leaving thousands of couples in legal limbo.

The landscape is beginning to change, legal specialists said, as couples like the Ziviello-Howells win small victories in court. A bankruptcy judge last month overrode the U.S. Trustee, finding the women were legally married and could go forward with their case as spouses.

"Portions of the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act are crumbling, at least in the lower courts," said Brian K. Landsberg, a distinguished professor and scholar of constitutional law at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

The ultimate fate of the federal law, which defines marriage as between "one man and one woman," likely will rest with the U.S. Supreme Court, Landsberg said.

In the meantime, the federal government is sending mixed signals. In February, the Obama administration declared that it no longer would defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. But until the law is struck down or repealed by Congress, federal agencies including the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Social Security Administration continue to enforce it.

The Butte County women, who married in Sacramento in 2008 before Proposition 8 banned such unions, are among the first same-sex couples to challenge bankruptcy laws. Similar cases are pending around the country.

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