Citizens: State should give gay partners benefits

Only one out of more than 20 who testified favored changing the Alaska constitution

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006

Ministers, high school students and others told the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that an amendment aimed at taking away benefits extended to partners of gay state workers is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The hearing was the first chance for the public to speak on an Alaska constitutional amendment that says rights and benefits will only be extended to marriages between a man and a woman. Only one out of more than 20 citizens who testified spoke out in favor of the constitutional amendment.

Some compared attempts at limiting same-sex benefits though the ballot box to former Southern opposition to racial integration.

"I assume ... you're mindful of the vision of Gov. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door arguing that it's fine for people in Alabama to be racist because that's what the residents wanted," said Juneau resident Scott Miller, a parent of a gay child.

Several gays and lesbians said the amendment would subject people in their community to paying astronomically high health care costs on their own. Others said they are entitled to the benefits because they earned them as workers for the state.

A handful of those who testified even compared the proposal to acts committed by Nazi Germany.

Committee member Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said those comments were an unfair comparison.

In October, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that denying benefits to same-sex partners of state employees violated the Alaska Constitution's equal protection clause.

Gov. Frank Murkowski and several Republican lawmakers say the judges are ignoring an amendment to the Alaska Constitution passed by voters in 1998, which said only marriages between one man and one woman are recognized in this state.

Alaska voters, not the courts, should make the decision on whether the state should extend the benefits, said Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the bill.

Debbie Joslin, president of the family-advocacy Eagle Forum's Alaska chapter, was the lone amendment supporter among more than 20 witnesses at the meeting.

"The court is attempting to legislate from the bench," she said. "All this resolution does is give the people of Alaska a chance to reiterate what they said last time."

The constitutional change would require a two-thirds vote of the Alaska Legislature and approval from the majority of voters in November's election.

Juneau Assembly member Jon Anderson said the amendment could be interpreted to mean the city and the university will no longer be able to offer those benefits.

At the next hearing an expert will be on hand to answer questions about municipalities that already offer benefits, Seekins said. He added it would not apply to collective bargaining agreements, such as those the university holds.

No date is slated yet but Seekins said another hearing will be held next week. He expects to have one or two more meetings on the resolution before the committee votes.

On the House side, a companion resolution introduced by House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, could get a hearing next week, Coghill said.

Seekins said even though opponents of the amendment dominated Thursday's hearing, supporters from all over the state are calling his office and encouraging him to pass the proposal to let the voters decide the issue.

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