Blog of Rights

Honoring Love and Commitment in the Heartland

By James Esseks, Director, ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project at 4:49pm

A bill allowing for civil unions has been passed by the Illinois legislature and the governor is expected to sign it shortly. The Illinois bill will provide important protections to same-sex couples, including medical decision-making authority; pensions for surviving partners of teachers, police officers, and firefighters; intestacy rights; and the right to share a nursing home room. We will continue to push for marriage here as elsewhere, but the Illinois civil unions bill continues a clear trend line towards increasing fairness in how we treat all families.

Meanwhile, next door in Missouri, we filed a new case today looking for fair treatment for the surviving partner of a Missouri state trooper. Dennis Engelhard and Kelly Glossip were together for 15 years. They exchanged commitment rings, vowed to take care of each other in good times and bad, and owned a home together. Dennis helped Kelly care for his child from a former marriage. The two would have married if Missouri recognized their union.

Dennis was a state highway patrol officer and had to work on Christmas Day 2009, so he and Kelly exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve instead. On Christmas Day, while on duty, Dennis was struck by a vehicle and killed as he was responding to a traffic accident. Following his death, the governor ordered all U.S. and Missouri flags to be flown at half-staff, to honor Dennis’s service to Missouri. But despite Kelly and Dennis’s long-term, committed relationship, Kelly wasn’t eligible for the pension benefit that Missouri provides to the surviving spouses of state troopers. In Missouri’s eyes, the two were legal strangers.

This video shows that, after 15 years as a couple, Kelly and Dennis were anything but strangers:

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This case isn’t about marriage, it simply challenges the unfairness of the state refusing to provide this important protection to Dennis’s surviving life partner, whose life is affected in the same devastating way that a surviving spouse would be. After having completed a lengthy state administrative process, we’ve filed in state court and argue that the state needs a very good reason to justify penalizing Kelly and Dennis because of the family relationship they formed.

Kelly’s case builds on similar discrete domestic partnership benefits successes we’ve had in Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, and our aim is both to help Kelly (and others like him) and to prompt the state to recognize domestic partners more generally. If we’re going to continue to add to the list of states with relationship protections, we’re going to have to work in more conservative states like Missouri. Stories like those of Kelly and Dennis, that are heart-wrenching precisely because of the commitment at the center of the tragedy, are a perfect way to start the conversation about relationship protections in these red states. Watching the video about their lives together, it is hard to argue that their commitment deserves any less dignity, security or respect than what is granted to other state troopers’ families in Missouri.

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