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Will Alaska be same-sex marriage's Last Frontier?

Posted: February 21, 2012 - 1:00am

JUNEAU — Stephanie Figarelle and Lela McArthur traveled more than 3,300 miles from their Anchorage home to get married, and in high fashion they became the first same-sex couple to exchange vows at the Empire State Building.

The ceremony was put on by event planner Colin Cowie, and the couple was treated to some of the best New York had to offer: rings from DeBeers, a stay at the Pierre Hotel and gowns from Kleinfeld.

But another thought weighed on some who attended the wedding.

“It’s rather sad that someone has to travel all the way to New York to get married because they don’t have the ability to do so legally (in their home state),” said Cowie.

“Equality’s a beautiful thing,” Figarelle said. She also told reporters she hopes to see Alaska legalize same-sex marriage.

It appears unlikely that will happen anytime soon. Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, including Alaska’s nearest neighbor, Washington state just last week. But a ban was crafted into the state constitution almost 15 years ago and federal law passed during that era both give advocates hurdles to clear.

While the newlyweds are legally married in New York, their marriage certificate carries no legal weight in Alaska.

The 1998 amendment defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act limits rights provided by same-sex marriages to only the state in which a couple was married.

Since Alaskans approved its amendment almost 2-to-1, public opinion is shifting on same-sex marriage.

Forty-five percent of Alaskans approved of unions for people of the same gender in 2010, according to a New York Times poll, almost double the 23 percent approval recorded from 1994-96.

Even shifting opinion couldn’t make same-sex marriage legal, nor would simply passing a law.

To amend the Alaska Constitution, a bill has to pass the House and Senate, and then be signed into law by the governor, just to open up a ballot measure for voters to consider changes to the constitution. Then at the next election, a majority of voters would have to approve it.

But many lawmakers who wrote the language of the original amendment and passed it into law have only shuffled offices in the Capitol.

Gov. Sean Parnell was then a senator from Anchorage, and he helped pass the amendment through two committees and again through the Senate. Now he’s governor and would have to sign into law any bill that called for a ballot measure. Plenty of other opponents to same-sex marriage remain in office and positions of influence.

Parnell’s spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said the governor “has supported and continues to support Alaska’s constitutional provision defining marriage between a man and a woman.”

Advocates hoped a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban, would have wider impact so court challenges could take place around the country. But the Ninth Circuit judges offered a narrowly-worded opinion only guaranteed to affect California.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Alaska, said Alaska has never enacted marital relation benefits or domestic partnership laws for same-sex couples equivalent to marriage. California did, and those were the basis of the court’s decision. Mittman said without those in place in Alaska, it would be difficult to make an argument unless there is an authoritative ruling on the California decision or another case by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other than a bill proposed by Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, which would prohibit discrimination on a basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity, there’s not much movement in Juneau. And that bill was introduced early last year but still awaits its first hearing in the House State Affairs Committee.

“Right now, in Alaska, it’s perfectly legal for an employer to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t hire people like you.’ A restaurant could refuse to serve a gay man just because he’s gay,” Mittman said. “Until people have basic rights, until we stop discrimination, we can’t focus on anything else.”

“Sometimes you have to wait for the right moment, the right issue, the right people,” Kerttula said. “But Alaska has always led on issues of civil rights, and we need to educate people and show that this is a civil rights issue. You can’t discriminate against people because of who they are.”

Residents of Anchorage will vote on April 3 on an initiative that would serve the same purpose as Kerttula’s bill.

The Alaska Family Council is heading opposition to that initiative.

“We don’t support bullying, harassment or anything like that,” said Jim Minnery, council president. “These are just efforts to try to develop law to affirm gay and lesbian lifestyle. This is a private property issue, and it’s not an immutable issue like race. This isn’t about telling people who they can or can’t love,” he said. “Government has always recognized marriage as a very unique institution, here and everywhere else in history.”

Some officials acknowledge that their opinions on issues that surrounded the 1998 debate have changed.

Sen. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican who was a staunch supporter of the amendment, said he still believes only in the traditional concept of marriage. He said a government “stamp of approval” on relationships that are a departure from Western values would be damaging, but some beliefs he once held changed as he met members of the gay community and heard their struggles firsthand.

“Maybe in my old age I’ve gotten a little wiser,” Dyson said. “I have a lot of compassion for the situation they’re in. I’m glad to do anything I can to make sure gay couples have all the legal rights that heterosexuals have.”

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