ANCHORAGE - The city of Anchorage is planning to offer benefits to same-sex partners of public employees to comply with a recent Alaska Supreme Court ruling - and advocates said Thursday the state would be wise to do the same.
"We'd hope the state would approach the set of issues that need to be resolved with the same good faith approach that the city seems to be pursuing," said Michael Macleod-Ball, director of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was referring to court papers filed by the municipality in response to the October decision by the high court.
Gay rights advocates claimed a major victory when the court unanimously ruled that denying benefits to the gay partners of public employees was unconstitutional. Alaska was one of the first states to pass a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage. That prohibition bars gay couples from receiving benefits enjoyed by their straight counterparts, the court said.
Supporters said the ruling could have a sweeping effect on other states because of its equal protection rationale. Gov. Frank Murkowski and other conservative Republicans quickly countered with vows to try to overturn it, starting with legislative approval for a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved by voters.
The Supreme Court asked the city, state and the ACLU to offer suggestions on how to offer the benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Until a remedy is reached, the disputed benefits plans stand.
Gay couples, through the ACLU, and the city have filed plans laying out their positions. The state plans to file its plan by Thursday and will not comment on the matter until it becomes public, said Jan DeYoung, an assistant general attorney who supervises employee benefits issues.
In its seven-page response, the city of Anchorage proposed following guidelines used by Juneau to establish domestic-partner eligibility, noting that Anchorage would limit benefits to same-sex couples. Juneau's domestic-partner benefits also applies to opposite-gender couples who meet certain criteria, said Juneau city attorney John Hartle.
The city wants 150 days to comply with any court-ordered remedy. But in its brief filed earlier this month, Anchorage argued that some benefits for its employees are beyond its legal reach. For example, some workers receive health care and retirement benefits from their union trust funds. Some participate in the Alaska Public Employees' Retirement System.
"Many of our employees are in the state retirement system, and we can't do anything about that," said municipal attorney Fred Boness. "The trust funds are regulated by federal law. They were not sued by the plaintiffs and we can't tell them what to do."
Macleod-Ball said he doesn't consider such issues as insurmountable challenges.
"None of this is rocket science," he said. "I think there are a number of issues that need to be fixed, but none of them are so complicated that they can't be resolved with some purpose and resolve."