ACLU appeals gay benefits case to state Supreme Court

Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Civil Liberties Union appealed a lawsuit Wednesday to the state Supreme Court in an effort to get benefits extended to gay couples working for the state or Municipality of Anchorage.

Nine gay or lesbian employees and their partners have joined the ACLU in the suit that goes back to 1999, shortly after Alaska voters passed a Constitutional amendment barring state recognition of gay marriage.

The ACLU expects the state's highest court to hear the case this year.

Plaintiffs argue that the state's ban on gay marriage makes it impossible for gays working for the state or city to get benefits for their partners because marriage is required to qualify.

''It is patently unconstitutional for a state to say that you have to be married in order to get benefits, while at the same time denying gay and lesbian couples the option of marrying,'' ACLU attorney Ken Choe said in a news release.

The ACLU suggests that a domestic partner registry be set up to determine benefit eligibility.

Plaintiffs include a lesbian couple with three adoptive children who need full-time care and a Department of Labor employee whose partner paid $20,000 for dental work.

A Superior Court judge ruled last November that the state and municipality does not have to extend benefits to gay or lesbian couples. Judge Stephanie Joannides ruled that same-sex couples are in the same legal category as unmarried heterosexual couples, and neither are entitled to benefits.

The state has argued against extending benefits on a number of fronts, including the additional cost, the practicality of determining who would qualify and the state's interest in promoting marriage.

''If you're married you show them a marriage license,'' said Assistant Attorney General John Gaguine, who expects to argue the case before the high court. ''There's nothing comparable you can do with domestic partners.''

Plaintiffs' lawyer Allison Mendel said the state has no legitimate interest in promoting marriage. But Gaguine pointed out that the Bush administration recently announced it wanted to spend millions to promote marriage.

''Other courts have accepted that as a legitimate reason,'' he said.

Gaguine said that instead of the courts the matter should be decided in the Legislature. In 1996, the Legislature decided to deny the same benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian state employees, he said.

The Legislature used a measure that has long been a tradition in Alaska, Gaguine said.

''The state had to draw a line somewhere where they have to cut off benefits,'' Gaguine said. ''They drew the line at spouses and dependent children.''

The line is unfair, said plaintiff Dan Carter, 54, who filed the suit with Al Incontro, 71, his partner of 33 years.

Carter recently retired after more than 23 years as an employee of Anchorage. He said it seemed wrong that the spouses of heterosexual employees were covered but not his domestic partner.

''It just didn't seem fair. My partner is my family,'' he said.

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