Same-Sex Domestic Partners Win Claim For Benefits In Alaska

In 1998, the State of Alaska adopted what is commonly known as the “Marriage Amendment.” The Marriage Amendment provides that “to be valid or recognized in this state, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.”
The Municipality of Anchorage and the State of Alaska offer a variety of benefits, including health insurance, to the spouses of employees but do not offer those benefits to unmarried employees’ domestic partners. Because of the Marriage Amendment, all opposite-sex adult couples may marry and thus become eligible for the benefits.

However, no same-sex couple can ever become eligible for the benefits because same-sex couples may not marry in Alaska.

The situation resulted in a lawsuit filed against the Municipality and the State by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU contended the different treatment of same-sex domestic partners as opposed to married public employees violated the Alaska constitution.

The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU. The Court began by noting that Alaska has a “more stringent equal protection standard” than that which appears in federal law. Under the Alaska standards, the Courts place a progressively greater or lesser burden on a governmental body, depending upon the importance of the individual right affected by the disputed classification and the nature of the government interest at stake.

The threshold matter the Court was required to address was the employers’ arguments that their benefits programs differentiate on the basis of marital status, not sexual orientation agendas. As the Municipality argued, “all married employees can confer benefits on their spouses, and no unmarried employees can confer benefits on their partners. Therefore, the Municipality treats same-sex couples no differently than any other unmarried couples, and consequently there is no basis for any full protection of claim.”

Though it acknowledged that other courts had reached a different conclusion on the issue, the Court rejected the employers’ arguments. The Court found that “the proper comparison is between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples, whether or not they are married. Unmarried public employees in opposite-sex domestic relationships have the opportunity to obtain these benefits, because employees are not prevented by law from marrying their opposite-sex domestic partners. In comparison, public employees in committed same-sex relationships are absolutely denied any opportunity to obtain these benefits, because these employees are barred by law from marrying their same-sex partners in Alaska or having any marriage performed elsewhere recognized in Alaska.”

The Court also found that the different treatment of the two classes of employees violated Alaska’s guarantees of equal protection. The Court acknowledged that there were governmental interests of “cost control, administrative efficiency, and promotion of marriage” that were legitimate. However, the Court found that “the absolute denial of benefits for public employees with same-sex domestic partners is not substantially related to these government interests. As the Court viewed it, “there is no indication here that denying benefits to public employees with same-sex domestic partners has any bearing on who marries. There is no indication here that granting or denying benefits to public employees with same-sex domestic partners causes employees with opposite-sex domestic partners to alter their decisions about whether to marry. There is no indication that any of the same-sex employees, having been denied these benefits, will now seek opposite-sex partners with an intention of marrying them. And, if such changes resulted in sham or unstable marriages entered only to obtain or confer these benefits, they would not seem to advance any valid reasons for promoting marriage. In short, there is no indication that the programs’ challenged aspect – the denial of benefits to all public employees with same-sex domestic partners – has any relationship at all to the interest in promoting marriage.”

Alaska Civil Liberties Union v. State of Alaska, 2005 WL 2812481 (Alaska 2005).

This article appears in the December 2005 issue