On April 3, the state will hold a special election soliciting the public's opinion on amending Alaska's Constitution to prohibit the same-sex partners of public employees from receiving health benefits.
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Next Tuesday's vote is just advisory - it's basically an expensive and unscientific public opinion poll - but proponents of the proposed amendment couldn't muster the two-thirds support needed in the Legislature last year and hope if the voters speak, legislators will listen.
The controversy dates to 1998, when Alaskans approved a constitutional amendment specifying that marriage is between one man and one woman. The pro-amendment campaign was bankrolled by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, in Utah.
Public employees with same-sex domestic partners sued. Because they now had no possibility of marrying, they said, they had no way of obtaining the health benefits for their partners that their heterosexual peers received - and were thus deprived of equal pay for equal work.
Alaska's five Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed that you can't tell people they're not allowed to marry, and then deny benefits on the basis that they're not married. That, they said, is a violation of our constitution's equal protection clause, which states:
"This constitution is dedicated to the principles that all persons have a natural right to ... the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry; that all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law[.]"
Justice Robert Eastaugh explained in the high court's October 2005 ruling: "Programs allowing the governments to give married workers substantially greater compensation than they give, for identical work, to workers with same-sex partners cut against these constitutional principles yet further no legitimate goal of the governments as public employers."
Like our justices, I fail to see the public purpose of depriving certain classes of people of employment benefits.
"There is no indication here that denying benefits to public employees with same-sex domestic partners has any bearing on who marries," wrote Eastaugh, dismissing the state's contention that its discriminatory benefits policy promotes marriage.
There's also an issue of local control. The University of Alaska and the city of Juneau, among others, offer health insurance to the same-sex partners of their employees. University officials say this is a strategic decision that helps them attract the most qualified staff. The proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit any political subdivision of the state from offering these benefits. Here in Juneau, we'd lose the freedom to make that decision for ourselves.
Some suggest we can avoid sexual politics - and avert claims of discriminatory treatment from single people - by allowing each public employee to designate a recipient for employment benefits. Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a self-described social conservative, told me in a February interview that's the best way to be fair without sanctioning same-sex relationships per se:
"If you have a dad [with] Alzheimer's, take care of Dad. And if you have a same-sex lover, go ahead and take care of them. ... I think that's probably the best way to diffuse the whole argument."
The amendment Alaskans are being asked to endorse would prohibit such creative and broad-minded solutions.
Until 1998 our constitution was fundamentally aimed at improving the lives of Alaskans and safeguarding our rights. The relatively new push to use the constitution to diminish rights is deeply disturbing.
If we decide that one class of citizens is exempt from the protections our founders held dear, how much faith can any of us place in our liberties? In a pluralistic society, we can and must think of better ways of resolving our differences than taking away each other's rights.
Rebecca Braun is publisher and editor of the Alaska Budget Report, a newsletter covering state government and policy. Braun can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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