JUNEAU — Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s announcement last week that she now supports same-sex marriage caused a ripple nationwide, but what effect it might have back home — if any — isn’t immediately clear.
Alaska in 1998 was the first state to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, a measure Murkowski says she voted for but has since changed her mind.
Leaders in the Alaska House and Senate don’t appear to be in a rush to change the state’s constitution to allow same-sex marriage, though some lawmakers believe that attitudes on the issue are changing.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, on Friday said there haven’t been any discussions within the caucus about the issue since Murkowski’s announcement. He said he supports the constitution that’s in place right now.
Republicans control both the Alaska House and Senate. House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she was heartened to get a hearing this year on a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. The bill stayed in committee, but remains in play when the Legislature returns to work in January. A similar proposal stalled during the prior Legislature.
“This is going to happen, it’s just, hopefully, a matter of when,” Kerttula said.
State Senate Majority Leader John Coghill said he doesn’t think the Legislature will take up the issue in the foreseeable future unless it’s forced to by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court is expected to render decisions soon on two cases involving same-sex marriage. One challenges California’s voter-approved proposition defining marriage as between a man and a woman; another seeks to strike down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denies to legally married same-sex couples benefits generally available to married heterosexuals.
In Alaska, a proposed constitutional amendment can appear on the ballot if it’s approved by two-thirds of each chamber of the state Legislature. Changes also can be made at a constitutional convention. Alaskans last year voted against a constitutional convention, where any issue could be up for debate.
Coghill, R-North Pole, said he’s a “traditional marriage guy,” who supported the 1998 amendment and still does. He said he doesn’t feel any pressure right now to revisit it. However, “I think there is a societal change coming,” he said.
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, the nation’s view on this is changing, and Murkowski’s statement helps.
She said she sees a growing movement toward civil unions and is considering legislation of some sort related to that.
Republican leaders of the Alaska House in February apologized for laughter by some caucus members when asked about same-sex partnerships at a news conference to discuss the caucus’ guiding principles. Some websites and blogs cast this as majority members laughing at or laughing off the idea of civil unions.
Chenault at the time called the laughter inappropriate but said it was in reaction to which legislator had to field the difficult question. House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt said it was a serious issue but not something the caucus had taken a position on.
On the national level, Murkowski’s announcement means both Alaska’s U.S. senators hold that position. But the state’s lone U.S. House member and its governor believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Joshua Decker, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said Murkowski’s decision could be a watershed moment where others follow her lead. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who sees a ban on same-sex marriage as discriminatory, said Murkowski’s announcement showed “this isn’t some liberal agenda or some other agenda. It’s about people’s rights.”
But Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, said if anything, it shows Murkowski is a weak, vacillating politician and many conservatives were right in opposing her during her last re-election bid in 2010. He said he has nothing against people loving or being in solid relationships with whomever they please, but people are being too quick to “jump on the bandwagon” of same-sex marriage.
Once you change the definition of marriage and make it “genderless,” there’s no reason for also having a limit on how many people can be in a marriage, he said.
Murkowski, in a statement Wednesday, said her view on same-sex marriage “evolved as America has witnessed a clear cultural shift.”
She described a same-sex military couple who had adopted four children. “After their years of sleepless nights, afterschool pickups and birthday cakes, if one of them gets sick or injured and needs critical care, the other would not be allowed to visit them in the emergency room — and the children could possibly be taken away from the healthy partner,” she said. “They do not get considered for household health care benefit coverage like spouses nationwide. This first-class Alaskan family still lives a second-class existence.”
She called it a “personal liberty issue.”
“We don’t want the government in our pockets or our bedrooms; we certainly don’t need it in our families,” she said.
Murkowski became the third Senate Republican to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, joining 49 Democrats and two independents in the Senate with that view.