The Alaska Republican Party would like you to know that they are anti-gay. Very anti-gay. If you are gay, they would like you to either shut up about the fact that you are gay or relocate. I’d opt for somewhere that isn’t Kansas, but the larger point is this: the state GOP would like you quiet or gone. You are separate, unequal, and part of America’s decline.
I thought the hostility had reached its zenith last session, when a question from Juneau Empire reporter Mark Miller — asking if the Republican-dominated House Majority supported the idea of domestic partnerships for same sex couples — resulted in open laughter by caucus members.
Speaker of the House Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) thumped his fist on the table. Craig Johnson (R-Anchorage) (as Jeanne Devon pointed out) threw his head back and roared. Bob Lynn’s beard (R-Anchorage) bounced as he giggled. As the chuckles rolled on, Majority Leader Lance Pruitt sarcastically said, “I don’t know if I saw that in our Guiding Principles.” A voice from off camera joked: “I didn’t see it in there.”
I would like to make two things clear: laughter was not an appropriate response under any circumstances, and we regret and apologize for the reaction to that question. It was a serious question; it is a serious issue – and it is not something the Caucus has taken a position on.
Now they have. Repeatedly.
At the beginning of the month, North Pole Republican Doug Isaacson introduced a good idea. HB212 extends an exemption the state affords active duty service members, allowing them to retain their out of state drivers licenses while stationed in Alaska, to their spouses. Military personnel have no choice in where they are sent to serve, and many plan to return home once the service is complete. While they are here, there’s no logical reason we should require them to surrender that residency. The same can be said for their spouses, so why not include them as well?
But Isaacson’s bill used the specific term “spouse,” opening the proposal up to an inevitable constitutional challenge. Alaska currently endures a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage; the exemption would likely not be afforded, as written, to same sex partners — the state does not recognize them as or allow them to become “spouses.”
A 2005 Alaska Supreme Court case, ACLU v. Alaska, established that any benefits provided by the state to opposite-sex couples could not be denied to same-sex partners; such practices violate our state constitution’s equal protection clause.
During HB212’s first stop in the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Representative Max Gruenberg (D-Anchorage) offered an amendment that would have expanded the bill to include “same sex partners.”
It failed, 3-2.
As part of his objection, Isaacson told his colleagues: “A spouse is a spouse.”
The committee passed the bill out of committee.
Bright and early yesterday morning, the House State Affairs Committee took up the issue. Sitka Representative Jonathan Kriess-Tomkins, the lone Democrat serving on the committee, proposed the amendment again. Rep. Gruenberg was present to emphasize its necessity:
I support the bill, but I cannot support the effect, if not the intent, that’s discriminatory. And, you know, I respect everybody on this committee personally, and I respect you professionally. But, I think it’s important that we not permit this kind – even if it’s a small amount – of unequal treatment to continue.
The amendment failed, 5-1.
Representative Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage) dismissed the idea entirely. “This subject certainly is, to me at least, a surprising issue, overall,” he summarized the body’s apparent thoughts on the matter. “But, issue or not, I don’t think it’s germane really to who gets a drivers license and who doesn’t, which is the main part of this bill.”
Which is totally true, except for the tiny fact that the bill, as it stands, arbitrarily chooses who does and does not qualify for the exemption. And it tells all gay and lesbian service members who are in committed relationships that they, specifically, are being denied that exemption. On account of being gay or lesbian, and for no other reason.
“A spouse is a spouse,” Isaacson repeated, again.
By ignoring the constitutionality of the legislation’s current language, the House members may have started into motion a process that they might likely regret. Representative Gruenberg never acts without careful thought, and his amendment was not ideological — counter to a claim lodged by Representative Wes Keller (R-Wasilla). It was an issue raised by the Department of Law during the bill’s first hearing. The amendment was specifically crafted to accommodate those concerns, and those concerns only, as he explained today:
The amendment is carefully crafted so that it doesn’t reach the issue of whether it is unconstitutional to deny same sex couples the right to marry, because what we’ve done here is take language from state regulations that were adopted after the ACLU case, that does not say they are married.
If the bill passes as written, it presumably won’t take long before a same-sex military couple challenges the exemption as a blatantly discriminatory policy. That could turn into a court case with standing. Court challenges to state bans on marriage equality haven’t been working as intended for Republican holdouts lately.
You reap what you sow.
Several hours later, the scene devolved further.
Yesterday afternoon, Senator Fred Dyson (R-Eagle River) was sitting patiently, listening attentively as Lauree Morton worked her way through a PowerPoint presentation. Morton serves as the Executive Director of the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. She was invited to present the Senate Finance Sub-Committee on Public Safety an update about the state’s efforts to curb violent crime in Alaska.
After close to an hour of information, Senator Donald Olson (D-Nome) expressed the frustration shared by anyone privy to the state’s record, asking: “It seems like every time I look at the national situation, that Alaska’s always number one in domestic violence and sexual assault. Where are we going wrong?”
Senator Dyson wasn’t happy the answer Morton supplied, so he submitted his own:
As you know, I’ve been paying attention to this a lot. It was quite disappointing to me, in the list of things you mentioned, is it wasn’t the disintegration of families in America, and the correlation between our kids growing up in married, two parent, opposite-sex families that were stable and together, you know, for a long period of time. The decrease in that, which is profound, exactly correlates with the increase of a whole lot of social dysfunctions.
I wonder if the thought that same-sex couples are to blame for rape and domestic abuse is the dominant strain of thought among Senate and House Republicans. If it is, surely denying the partners of gay and lesbian service members drivers license exemptions will solve the problem.
This has not been a good week for equality or statesmanship in Alaska.