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Alaska court
orders equality for gay couples

Alaska court
orders equality for gay couples

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The Alaska supreme court ruled unanimously Friday that it's unconstitutional to deny benefits to state employees' same-sex domestic partners.

In a unanimous decision, the Alaska supreme court ruled on Friday that it is unconstitutional for the state to continue to deny equal benefits to the domestic partners of lesbian and gay state employees and retirees. The court wrote that the state's policy of denying lesbian and gay couples equal employee benefits violates the state constitution's equal protection guarantees.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union 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 in an ACLU press release. Davis is a state employee; she and her partner, Maureen Longworth, are 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 coworkers do."

"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 American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, in the press release.

Representing nine lesbian and gay state and municipal employees and retirees and their partners, the ACLU filed the lawsuit in state court in 1999, shortly after Alaska's voters passed a state constitutional amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples. While the suit did 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. But on Friday the court firmly rejected that argument, stating that "denying benefits to the same-sex domestic partners who are absolutely ineligible to become spouses has no demonstrated relationship to the interest of promoting marriage."

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, during his recovery 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.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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