Alaska editorial: Don't change constitution to negate same-sex benefits

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The Alaska Supreme Court has ended the debate - for now - on whether public employees with same-sex domestic partners will receive health insurance benefits at work. The Dec. 19 ruling said yes, the state must comply with the court order and provide benefits starting Jan. 1.

The court also handed a victory to the state, ruling there's nothing wrong - at least at this time - with the state regulations requiring same-sex couples to meet five of eight relationship criteria to receive benefits.

The court did its job. It interpreted and enforced the Alaska Constitution: in this case, the constitutional protection against discrimination and the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.

If the Legislature doesn't like those constitutional provisions, and if the governor believes most Alaskans agree with the Legislature, they need to put a constitutional amendment before voters - not a political advisory vote.

But an advisory vote it is.

Gov. Sarah Palin said Wednesday she had signed the legislation setting up a special statewide election for April 3 to ask voters their opinion on same-sex partner benefits. At a cost of more than $1 million, the state will ask voters if they want legislators to propose a constitutional amendment that would prohibit employment benefits for same-sex partners of state, municipal and school district employees or retired employees.

A majority of legislators - mostly Republicans - approved the advisory vote during a special session last month. Supporters didn't have the two-thirds supermajority in the House and Senate to put the constitutional amendment before voters, so they opted for the advisory vote. They hope that a majority of Alaskans will vote yes in April, perhaps persuading reluctant legislators to climb aboard the constitutional bandwagon.

Gov. Palin is already aboard. She said Wednesday that an advisory vote would "further clarify for the court" that a majority of Alaskans do not believe same-sex partners are entitled to health insurance benefits.

"I certainly hope the courts will abide by the will of the people," she said.

But the will of the people is not the issue; the constitution is the issue. And enforcing the constitution is not a popularity contest. The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled on what the constitution says about paying unequal benefits to public employees.

Any effort to change that would be an affront to the longstanding principle of equal pay for equal work, and we hope Alaskans reject enshrining such discrimination in the constitution.

Meanwhile, if some legislators and the governor insist otherwise, rather than spend $1 million in public funds on an advisory vote, they should spend their own time and political capital campaigning for the two-thirds majority they need to put the discriminatory amendment before voters.

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