A federal judge has struck down as unconstitutional a 1979 Virginia law denying unemployment benefits to a person who quits work to relocate with a spouse, a statute that has mostly affected women and especially those with husbands in the military.

Denying unemployment benefits to persons who leave a job to remain with a spouse financially penalizes couples who want to live together, said U.S. District Judge Glen M. Williams of Abington, Va., in his ruling Wednesday.

"In the constitutionally protected area of marriage and family relationships, very little could be more basic or fundamental than a married couple's right to live together," Williams wrote.

Barbara Austin of Castlewood, Va., had sued a member of the Virginia Employment Commission and two of its employes over denial of her benefits under the 1979 law. Austin quit a job in Salem, Va., after her husband decided to move to Castlewood, Va., to care for his aging mother.

Williams declined Austin's request for the benefits she would have received, citing constitutional restrictions against retroactive damages against a state treasury.

"It's a wonderful decision," said Austin's attorney, Hugh F. O'Donnell. "Ninety percent of the people affected {by the statute} are women."

O'Donnell said he believes there are "thousands" of people who were disqualified from such benefits "if you think of all the military bases" in the state. "And many people never applied for the benefits because the law was on the books."

A spokesman for the commission and the state's Department of Employment declined to comment, saying officials there had not read Williams' ruling.

A department spokesman said he was unable to provide figures on how many people have been denied unemployment benefits -- which in Virginia can be paid for up to 26 weeks -- on the grounds that they left jobs to go with a spouse who relocated.

"It's a very, very small number," the spokesman said.

"Primarily it would occur with military families."

A Department of Defense spokesman said yesterday that there are 96,600 military personnel stationed in Virginia, with "at least 85 percent" of them living in Northern Virginia.

By comparison, Maryland has 35,700 and the District 12,700 military personnel stationed in their jurisdictions.

Many states bar unemployment benefits to those leaving a job to go with a relocated spouse, said Wendy Kahn, a lawyer with expertise in unemployment litigation.

For example, the District's position is that relocation is a voluntary departure from a job, making one ineligible for benefits, Kahn said.

O'Donnell, who works with the Client-Centered Legal Services of Southwest Virginia, said that before 1979, Virginia paid unemployment benefits to persons who left their jobs because a spouse was moving.

The 1979 statute, he said, was enacted despite the fact that Virginia officials were cautioned by the U.S. Department of Labor that the law could adversely affect women.

Williams found that the state's denial of her benefits also violated Austin's right to exercise her religion.

Austin had charged that the statute violated her First Amendment rights to freely exercise her religion. As a member of the Holiness Faith, she said, her religion requires her to respect her husband's decision to move and to live with her husband.