Unanimous Alaska Supreme Court Says It Is Unconstitutional to Deny Equal Benefits to Lesbian and Gay State Employees

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
October 28, 2005 12:00 am

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ANCHORAGE – In a unanimous decision today, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the state to continue to deny lesbian and gay state employees and retirees access to equal benefits for their domestic partners. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Alaska, which brought the challenge, cheered the decision as an important victory for same-sex couples and their families.

“”This decision is especially meaningful for us right now,”” said Lin Davis, a state employee who, with her partner Maureen Longworth, is one of the couples involved in the lawsuit. “”My partner was laid off from her job last month, and it has been a real struggle having to pay for her COBRA coverage each month. It is such a relief to know that we’ll soon have access to the same health benefits that my co-workers do.””

The court ruled that the state’s policy of denying lesbian and gay couples equal employee benefits violates the state constitution’s equal protection guarantees.

“”We are so pleased that the Alaska Supreme Court has recognized that same-sex couples form families and make lasting commitments just like different-sex couples, and that it’s unfair to deny lesbian and gay state employees the compensation their straight colleagues receive,”” said Michael W. Macleod-Ball, Executive Director of the ACLU of Alaska.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in state court in 1999, shortly after Alaska=s voters passed a state Constitutional amendment barring marriage for same-sex couples. 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 these public employment benefits violates the state constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

The state had argued that denying gay employees domestic partner benefits furthered the state’s interest in promoting marriage. Today the court firmly rejected that argument, stating: “”[D]enying benefits to the same-sex domestic partners who are absolutely ineligible to become spouses has no demonstrated relationship to the interest of promoting marriage.””

The ACLU represents nine lesbian or gay state and municipal employees or retirees and their partners who are barred from sharing the health, pension and insurance benefits that heterosexual couples can enjoy.

While the case was pending before the Alaska Supreme Court, the state’s refusal to provide the benefits was especially painful for Shirley Dean and Carla Timpone. In April 2003, Timpone was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. At the time, she was caring for her elderly father in New York, who was recovering from a triple bypass operation. She was working at a local school, primarily for the health insurance benefits. But because of the state’s discriminatory policy, Dean, as an Alaska child support enforcement officer was unable to provide coverage to Timpone, who had to keep working during her illness to remain covered. Not knowing how much longer they would be together, Dean was forced to take an early retirement in order to join Timpone in New York, where Timpone had access to benefits. Because she had not yet turned 55, she had to forfeit a large portion of her retirement. Timpone died last year. The couple had been together for more than 20 years.

The state has asked the parties to submit briefs to the court about how to adequately remedy the discrimination.

The legal team for the case included Ken Choe of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Allison Mendel of Mendel and Associates, and Tobias Wolff of the University of California Law School at Davis.

For additional information about the case, including a copy of today’s decision, visit www.aclu.org/caseprofiles

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