JUNEAU — The minority leader of the Alaska Senate on Monday proposed to strike the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the state, calling it a matter of conscience.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said that after reading a federal court decision from earlier this month striking down a voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Virginia, “’it was just completely clear to me, that whether we act or we wait for a federal U.S. Supreme Court decision, this is happening. We really are in a long march toward marriage equality.”
In a statement, French said passage of his constitutional amendment would let Alaska voters “remove this blot on our state constitution.”
The proposal was introduced Monday.
To pass, the proposal would need a two-thirds vote in each the Alaska Senate and the House before it could qualify for the ballot. It is the latest proposed constitutional change to be brought before lawmakers during the 28th Legislature. Supporters of another high-profile proposal, which would allow for public money to be used for private or religious schools, have argued that the people should be allowed to have their say. French opposes that proposed change.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, French told reporters he has had some casual conversations with other legislators about his proposal but “felt more morally compelled to file it than out of any sort of a vote-counting exercise.” He later called it a civil rights issue.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he disagrees with French’s proposal and said he didn’t think French had the support needed for the measure to advance in the Senate. “I think it’s one of those fundamental societal questions, and you can spin it as a human rights issue. But to me, it’s one of the health-of our-society issues,” Coghill said.
Alaska voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
In the past year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving a range of federal benefits. Federal courts have struck down state constitutional bans in Utah, Oklahoma and recently in Virginia, though appeals are pending or expected. States like Illinois and Hawaii have legalized same-sex marriage.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, made waves last year when she announced her support for same-sex marriage. Murkowski, in an opinion piece last June, said her view on the issue “evolved as America has witnessed a clear cultural shift.” She also called it a “personal liberty issue.”
Attorney General Michael Geraghty, in an interview last week, said he would continue to defend the state’s constitution, even as federal courts around the country strike down similar bans on same-sex marriage. Geraghty said he would not make decisions based on federal district court decisions that still had to be reviewed by appellate courts and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, which he expected would ultimately weigh in.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell, Sharon Leighow, said Parnell supports the constitutional provision defining marriage as between a man and a woman, “an issue voters have already weighed in on, unlike with SJR9,” which is the proposed amendment related to education that Parnell has called on lawmakers to debate and send to voters to decide.
“It is up to the Legislature to decide whether to send constitutional amendments to Alaska voters - a process the governor respects,” Leighow said by email.
Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, called French’s proposal “a slap in the face” of those who supported the 1998 amendment.
“I think the thing that Sen. French has to realize, along with others, is that it’s not really, for those of us who hold a traditional biblical view of marriage, it’s not really something that changes with time or with the political correctness of the culture,” Minnery said.
A definition of marriage is needed in terms of “lifting up an institution that has proven time and time and time again to be the best environment to raise kids,” he said.
Minnery also asked where one draws the line if same-sex marriage is allowed, noting, as an example, polygamous relationships.
Elias Rojas, board president of Alaskans Together For Equality, called French’s proposal “a step in the right direction. Marriage is a fundamental freedom that should not be denied to anyone.”
The proposal came on the same day that a Senate committee heard a bill that would bar discrimination in areas including employment, housing and credit based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
Discrimination is currently prohibited in those areas because of race, sex, religion, disability and pregnancy, among other things. SB131, from Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, would add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the list.