ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday ruled it was unconstitutional to deny benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees, a major victory for gay rights advocates in one of the first states to pass a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.
The unanimous decision essentially hinged on the issue of equal protection for all Alaskans, which could have a sweeping effect on other states, said Michael Macleod-Ball, director of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Other courts in other states could be looking to the state of Alaska on how it handled the equal protection rationale," he said.
The Alaska Supreme Court said in its ruling that public employees and their opposite sex partners can marry and become eligible for the city- or state-provided benefits.
"But no same-sex couple can ever become eligible for these benefits because same-sex couples may not marry in Alaska. The spousal limitations in the benefits programs therefore affect public employees with same-sex domestic partners differently than public employees who are married," the ruling says.
"We conclude that the public employers' spousal limitations violate the Alaska Constitution's equal protection clause," the ruling says.
"It's a good day for Alaska families," said Carrie Evans, state legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
The decision sets the stage for Alaska to join 11 other states that already have laws, policies or union contracts providing domestic partner benefits to state employees, she said.
The decision will "allow same-sex families to assume the same rights and responsibilities as married couples and to take care of their families. It's a great decision that means more Alaska families will be protected with essential things like health insurance," Evans said.
Plaintiff Lin Davis, a state unemployment counselor, said the ruling comes a month after her partner of more than 17 years, Maureen Longworth, was laid off from her job at a Juneau clinic.
"She's a doctor and she's really the bread earner," said Davis, 63. "Everybody is really excited. Now we just have to see how the next steps unfold."
"We're just looking to be able to take care of our partners and provide for them," she said.
The court said the disputed benefits plans will stand until a remedy is reached, and the ACLU and state said they expect to deliberate in future court hearings.
Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski was "outraged" by the ruling and has directed the attorney general's office to determine the best way to overturn the ruling, said his spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg.
The 29-page ruling is just the first round, said Jan DeYoung, an assistant general attorney who supervises employee benefits issues.
"It's an important decision, but it's not a final decision," she said.
However, Anchorage municipal attorney Fred Boness said the city would not fight the court's decision. He said officials would review the policies of other cities or universities to determine how Anchorage would provide the benefits and determine eligibility.
"We're disappointed that we lost, and I think it means we're going to have to provide those benefits in the future to qualifying same-sex couples," he said.
Nine gay or lesbian government workers and their partners in 2002 joined the Alaska ACLU in appealing a ruling in a 1999 lawsuit filed against the state and the Municipality of Anchorage after voters the previous year passed a constitutional amendment blocking state recognition of gay marriage.
In the 2001 Superior Court ruling, Judge Stephanie Joannides said the state and municipality did not have to extend benefits to same-sex couples. Joannides ruled that gay and lesbian couples are in the same legal standing as unmarried heterosexual couples, who also aren't eligible for benefits.
"The issue here was really one of fairness," Macleod-Ball said. "The state and the city were taking the position that the benefit plans promoted marriage. The court just out-and-out rejected that reasoning. It was a false justification for having benefits programs that discriminate against same-sex couples."