ACLU sues over same-sex property taxes

Posted: Wednesday, August 04, 2010

ANCHORAGE - The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the way property taxes are assessed for households headed by same-sex couples.

State regulations as interpreted by the state and the municipality of Anchorage discriminate against same-sex couples by denying property tax exemptions allowed for senior citizens and disabled veterans, said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU in Alaska.

"We are asking the court to overturn an unconstitutional practice of the state of Alaska. Lesbian and same-sex couples who are homeowners in the state of Alaska are discriminated against," Mittman said at a news conference outside Superior Court in Anchorage.

The ACLU says some same-sex couples are being forced to pay more in property taxes on their homes than married couples, and that is a violation of equal protection rights under the Alaska Constitution.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the state and the municipality of Anchorage to apply the tax exemption to three couples represented in the lawsuit as if they were in marriages the state recognizes. Alaska does not recognize marriage between same-sex domestic partners.

Mittman said married couples can apply for a $150,000 tax exemption regardless if the home is jointly owned or not. Same-sex domestic partners, however, are allowed only half the exemption because the state considers them roommates instead of married couples, he said.

Department of Law spokesman Bill McAllister said it was too early to comment on the lawsuit because it had not been reviewed yet.

Julie Schmidt, 67, and Gayle Schuh, 62, have been together for 33 years. Their bank accounts and real estate holdings are jointly owned. After retiring from long careers in education in Illinois, they moved to Alaska in 2003 and four years ago bought a home in Eagle River. When Schmidt turned 65, they applied for the tax exemption for senior citizens.

Schuh said they have never been allowed the maximum exemption.

"As a retired couple, this hits us in our pocketbooks and we would like some fairness and equity. It would only take a little bit for the state of Alaska to recognize us and give us the maximum benefit of this tax exemption," Schuh said at the news conference. "We would like all committed couples in Alaska to be able to say their state recognizes their commitment to each other and their state believes in equality for all of us."

The other plaintiffs are Julie Vollick, 45, and Susan Bernard, 41, who have been together for seven years and are raising four children in a home they purchased in Eagle River. Vollick has a service-related permanent disability from her 20 years of service in the U.S. Air Force.

Fred Traber, 62, and Larry Snider, 69, have been together for 28 years and got married in California in 2008. They live in an Anchorage condominium that is in Traber's name. Therefore, they have been denied any part of the exemption, the lawsuit says.

"If Snider and Traber were a married couple under Alaska law, the full tax exemption would apply regardless of whether the house were in Traber's name, Snider's name, or held jointly between them," the lawsuit says.

Mittman said the same-sex couples are being penalized for being in relationships.

"They are not roommates... They are family," he said.

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