Saturday, October 29, 2005

Alaska Makes It an Even Dozen

The Alaska Supreme Court yesterday ruled that employers in the public sector cannot deny benefits to same-sex partners. This raises to 12 the number of states in which gay and lesbian couples have the same right to employee benefits as married heterosexual couples.

Ironically, yesterday's decision came as a direct result of the law prohibiting gay marriage, which Alaska voters passed in 1996. The following year, same-sex partners Jay Brause and Gene Dugan filed a lawsuit challenging that statute. Brause and Dugan have been together for almost 20 years. They won that legal challenge; the Superior Court ordered the state to issue them a marriage license, unless it could demonstrate that doing so would be "against the best interest of the people of Alaska."

In response, Alaskans in 1998 passed an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages, and giving the state legislature authority to pass any law it wished concerning marriage. Gay rights advocates sued the state of Alaska and the municipality of Anchorage to have that amendment overturned. It was that lawsuit that, having made its way to the state's High Court on appeal, resulted in Friday's ruling requiring government employers to pay benefits to same-sex partners.

The Court's decision stated that denying benefits to same-sex partners violated the equal protection clause in Alaska's constitution. The reasoning here is interesting. The lower court judge had found no violation of equal protection, arguing that unmarried heterosexual couples are also ineligible for benefits under state law. In other words, the previous ruling hinged on a finding that marital status was the qualifying condition for benefits, not sexual orientation -- and since both homosexual and heterosexual unmarried couples were ineligible, there was no discrimination.

The Supreme Court rejected that interpretation, arguing that heterosexual couples can choose to marry -- an option specifically barred to same-sex couples; i.e., it is fundamentally unfair to say that two classes (heterosexuals and homosexuals) are being treated equally with regard to a qualifying status to which only one of those classes has access.

Elegant reasoning.

A big thank you to Chief, who told me about this ruling.

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