Juneau woman helped pioneer benefits law

After several years of waiting, same-sex partners are eligible

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Capitol was almost deserted as members of the Legislature struggled through an early November snowstorm to convene a special session.

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The goal of the Legislature's Republican majority: Find a way to stop the court-ordered imposition of employee benefits for same-sex partners of state workers.

Finally, shortly before midnight, the Senate had a quorum and the session began.

The session began with a prayer. Everyone stood for the pledge of allegiance. Then a few guests in the audience were introduced by their senators.

Democratic Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau introduced one of his constituents, Lin Davis. Few legislators appeared to notice, and almost no one looked back to the public gallery.

Had they looked, they'd have seen the reason they were there.

While Senators and others in the audience had been waiting for the weather-delayed session to begin for almost two full days, Davis had been waiting for nearly seven years.

In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska filed suit on behalf of Davis and several other state workers trying to win for them the same benefits their married co-workers received.

More than a year ago, the state Supreme Court unanimously found it unconstitutional to deny the benefits and ordered the state to provide them immediately.

The November session lasted a week, and legislators were unable to find a way of stopping the benefits from taking effect.

On Thursday, Gov. Sarah Palin, despite her opposition to equal benefits for gay and lesbian government employees, vetoed a bill passed in the special session designed to hinder the state's ability to provide the benefits.

That finally cleared the way for the benefits to take effect Monday.

"This is really a thrill after all these years," Davis said.

Davis began her quest on principle. Her partner of many years, Maureen Longworth, also was a state employee and didn't need the health care, survivor benefits and other perquisites of state employment.

As the long case drew to an end, however, Longworth lost her job. Now, Davis needs the benefits to cover her partner.

"I just want to be able to sign her up for health benefits. We are planning on that for Jan. 1 because her (health coverage) runs out," said Davis, a job counselor with the state.

Legally married couples, which Alaska law defines as opposite-sex partners, automatically qualify for coverage.

The state set up a series of criteria to determine whether same-sex couples also qualified. Such factors as evidence of a committed relationship, living together and commingled finances are considered by the state to be evidence of a substantial enough relationship.

"We just want to be able to take care of each other, especially in these older decades of our lives," said Davis, who is in her 60s.

Longworth is now self-employed, with Davis' state benefit providing crucial security for her.

Davis and her partner have been together for more than 18 years. They spent 21/2 hours presenting evidence that they met at least five of the state's nine criteria.

"We met walking old dogs, 14 and 16 years old, that could barely walk - we were not aerobic at all," she said. "Now we're on our third set of dogs. We've been through the deaths of both our fathers, we've been through huge life transitions together," she said. "We're doing this as a team."

Other same sex couples are going through similar scenarios.

Corin Whittemore and Gani Ruthellen also were among more than 90 state employees to qualify for the benefits, state officials said.

"We picked five (criteria) that were the least intrusive," Whittemore said.

Still ahead, however, is an April 3 advisory vote on the benefits. A bill placing that on the ballot was passed during the November special session, and earlier this month Palin signed it.

Palin reiterated her opposition to benefits for same-sex partners, and hopes the public vote will persuade legislators to vote for a constitutional amendment barring them.

Davis, Whittemore and Ruthellen say it is troubling to have what they see as an anti-gay ballot measure hanging over their heads for the next three months.

"Family, love and commitment mean the same thing to us as they do to people in that Legislature that don't want us to have these benefits," Davis said.

Activists were encouraged last November when a series of anti-gay rights measures around the nation didn't do as well as expected, and Arizona voted one down.

In 1998, Alaska voters banned gay marriage, but Davis said the increasing discussion of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples is leading to more acceptance of those seen as outside the majority.

"The conversation is working," she said.

She predicted the April vote would be close and might fail.

During the special session, legislators opposing partner benefits didn't actually criticize homosexuals. They argued instead that the state's judicial branch shouldn't intrude in the responsibilities of the legislative and executive branches.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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