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Volume 35
Issue 14
 
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Alaska voters pass advisory measure to ban state domestic partner benefits
Alaska voters pass advisory measure to ban state domestic partner benefits
53 to 47 percent favor adoption of constitutional amendment

by Lisa Keen - SGN Contributing Writer

Alaska illustrated well this week that, when it comes to same-sex marriage, Newton's third law applies: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Voters in the state approved a ballot measure that "advises" the state legislature to pass a constitutional amendment to ban equal benefits for the same-sex partners of state employees.

If you're feeling confused, here's why. In 1996, the Alaska legislature passed a statute banning same-sex marriage. Two years later, a judge ruled that a decision as important as who one chooses to spend one's life with was protected by the state constitution. So, later that year, the voters of Alaska were asked to approve a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and they did. But that amendment said nothing about the provision of benefits and, in 1999, the ACLU of Alaska filed a lawsuit on behalf of Gay employees of the state and the city of Anchorage who had partners in life who were being denied benefits given to the spouses of married heterosexual public employees.

Then, in 2005, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional amendment on marriage did not alleviate the governments from their obligation to treat employees equally in terms of benefits. Anchorage responded by extending equal benefits to the partners of Gay employees, but the state legislature passed a bill to prohibit state officials from complying with the order. The state supreme court directed the state to comply or the court would force compliance; and last year, the incoming governor said she would comply but called for a special election to ask voters to weigh in on a proposal for a constitutional amendment to take away benefits for same-sex partners of state employees.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that, except for some local races in Anchorage, the benefits referendum was the only issue on the state ballot and cost the state $1.2 million to take the vote where turnout was only about 23 percent. The news also reported that the 67 state employees who have signed up for partner benefits thus far cost the state about $350,000 per year.

Unofficial returns from the Secretary of State showed the vote was 53 percent to 47 percent in favor of the proposed ban.

Even before Tuesday's vote a Republican state representative (from "North Pole, Alaska") had already introduced a bill to the legislature to seek a constitutional amendment to ban benefits for Gay employees' partners. But given that the amendment would carve just one group out of getting benefits, it seems inevitable that the measure will be scrutinized by the courts under the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Romer v. Evans. That decision, in 1996, declared a state ballot measure in Colorado unconstitutional because it classified Gay people "to make them unequal to everyone else," violating the federal constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

UNSETTLED EVERYWHERE
Alaska is just one example of the unsettled nature of the battle of same-sex marriage. There are many:

In Massachusetts, the only state thus far to approve equal licensing of same-sex marriages and heterosexual marriages, a new state senate president -who supports equal rights for Gay couples-said last week she would allow a second and final vote on a measure to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot. Meanwhile, the state's new governor, a Democrat, this week reversed an order of former Republican Governor Mitt Romney that denied marriage licenses to 26 same-sex couples from out of state who married shortly before Romney ordered that local clerks reject out of state Gay couples for licensing. (The state supreme court eventually upheld Romney's use of a law limiting licenses to couples from states which do not have an official policy banning same-sex marriages.)

" In Indiana, a tie vote in a House committee on Tuesday killed the chances for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to proceed to the November 2008 ballot, although, if the legislature passes the proposal next year, it could still potentially be on the 2008 ballot. The battle in Indiana took an unusual turn late last month, too, when the major pharmaceutical firm of Eli Lilly urged the legislature to defeat the measure because of its potential to "impair our ability to offer competitive employee benefits or negatively impact our recruitment and retention."

" In New Hampshire, the House was slated to vote Wednesday on whether to approve a bill to allow Gay couples to obtain civil union licenses. The bill has support from the Democratic governor and would go next to the Senate.

" Interestingly, a prominent local newspaper, the Concord Monitor, editorialized in favor of civil unions in the state long known for its conservative Republican dominance.

"Other states are likely to follow Massachusetts's lead eventually," said the editorial. "But things could even take a different turn. Marriage could become solely a religious ceremony and civil unions, by one name or another, a relationship sanctioned by the state. The only thing certain is change."

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