ANCHORAGE -- The American Civil Liberties Union today urged the Alaska Supreme Court to grant lesbian and gay employees of the state and of Anchorage the option of obtaining health, pension and life insurance benefits for their partners. The lawsuit highlights the "Catch-22" of a law which denies lesbians and gay men the option to marry but guarantees special employment benefits only to married employees.
"Even though lesbian and gay government employees work just as hard as their co-workers, they're paid less," said Ken Choe, an ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project staff attorney handling the case. "Today we are asking the Alaska Supreme Court to recognize that discrimination against lesbian and gay government employees violates the guarantee of equal treatment in the state constitution."
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in state court in 1999, shortly after Alaska's voters passed a state Constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. While the lawsuit does not seek to invalidate that initiative, the ACLU argued that in light of the state prohibition, using marriage as the litmus test for benefits violates the Constitution's equal protection guarantees.
The ACLU represents nine lesbian or gay state or municipal employees and their partners who are barred from sharing the health, pension and insurance benefits that heterosexual couples can enjoy.
Several of the couples attended today's arguments, including Dan Carter, a former employee of the Department of Public Transportation of the Municipality of Anchorage, and his partner of over 33 years, Al Incontro. Because of the discriminatory policy, Incontro currently has no access to Carter's retirement coverage and death benefits, a substantial loss as both are now retired.
Lin Davis, a Community Development Specialist with the state Department of Labor in Juneau, and her partner of 14 years, Maureen Longworth, were also present. The couple has suffered significant financial losses because Davis has been barred from providing insurance coverage for Longworth.
A lesbian couple who wish to remain anonymous are also part of the lawsuit. They have adopted three children who require full-time care because of significant emotional and psychological needs caused by their background of abuse. Because the couple is not entitled to the insurance benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy, both must work full time in order to provide proper medical coverage for the family. Since one parent is unable to be at home with the children at all times, they have been forced to make the difficult decision to place two of the three children in a residential facility in Montana.
"When heterosexual employees choose to marry, the government provides health insurance and other benefits to their spouses. Lesbian and gay employees can't marry, but they nonetheless deserve the same benefits for their partners," said Choe. "The lesbian and gay couples who brought this lawsuit are asking for equal compensation for equal work. They aren't asking for the right to marry or for special benefits."
As an alternative to making marriage the sole determinant for benefits, the ACLU argued that government employers could make domestic partner registration or an affidavit of domestic partnership an alternative criterion for benefits. A growing number of private employers and governments have begun extending benefits to employees' domestic partners.
"A victory would directly affect government employers in Alaska and put government employers in other states on notice that they, too, may not discriminate against lesbian and gay employees without violating their own state constitutions," said Choe.
The Alaska case is just one facet of marriage-based discrimination targeted by the ACLU -- which brought the first-ever lawsuit seeking a marriage license for a gay couple in 1972. Currently, the ACLU is preparing to file a lawsuit to overturn a constitutional amendment passed last year by Nebraska's voters prohibiting the state from recognizing marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships between people of the same sex.