Same sex couples are just that: couples. Not roommates. The Court said so.
Four years ago, three same-sex couples filed a lawsuit against the state of Alaska and the city of Anchorage. Julie Schmidt and Gayle Schuch, Julie Vollick and Susan Bernard, and Fred Traber and Larry Snider contended that the state’s policy of recognizing property tax exemptions for senior citizens and disabled veterans in opposite-sex partnerships — while denying those same exemptions to same-sex couples — violated the Alaska state constitution’s equal protection clause.
It’s another landmark step in a long struggle for basic equal protections for LGBT Alaskans.
After passage of the 1998 Constitutional Amendment redefining marriage in the state of Alaska as “between one man and one woman,” the Rick Mystrom administration used that new definition to bar same-sex couples from receiving worker benefits. Nine public sector workers filed suit in response. An initial superior court ruling upheld the discriminatory policy as permissible under the state’s newly adopted same-sex marriage ban. But, the Alaska Supreme Court would overrule that decision in 2005, finding that “the public employer’s spousal limitations violate the Alaska Constitutions equal protection clause.”
In the court’s opinion, Justice Robert Ladd Eastaugh emphasized that when “the state or a political subdivision acts in this capacity,” i.e., offering benefits to one group while denying them to another, “it is subject to the overarching principles set out in Article I, Section 1, and Article XII, Section 6, of the Alaska Constitution.”
In other words, extending job benefits (health insurance, retirement packages, etc.) to an opposite-sex couple while denying it to a same-sex couple didn’t play well with the very first provision in Alaska’s constitution; the part that says “all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law[.]”
That decision, however, rule broadly enough to include another perk of being straight, married, and an Anchorage resident: tax exemptions for senior citizens and disabled military spouses. “Those who qualify [for those tax exemptions] and who live with same-sex partners are only permitted, at most, half of the $150,000 exemption available to opposite-sex married couples because they are treated as roommates rather than families,” the Alaska Civil Liberties Union explained.
In 2011, the Superior Court found that policy discriminatory, ruling in favor of Schmidt. The state appealed. Today, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling finding that the state acted unconstitutionally in barring same-sex couples from receiving the tax exemptions.
“Gayle and I built a home and a life here because we loved what Alaska had to offer,” Julie Schmidt told the Washington Blade today. “It hurt that the state that we loved so much treated us like strangers. It is gratifying to have our relationship recognized.”
Schmidt has co-owned that Eagle River home with partner of over 30 years, Gayle Schuh. State Assessor Steve Van Sant offered a sworn affidavit to the Court which calculated that if Schuh and Schmidt had been married, their property tax in 2010 would have been roughly “359.31 less.”
A similar finding was made for Julie Vollick and Susan Bernard. Vollick served in the United States Air Force for 20 years, including tours of duty in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and has service-related injuries. Van Sant told the Court that “if Vollick and Bernard had been married, they could have obtained a disabled veteran exemption… and they would have owed ‘roughly $528.76 less’ in property taxes in 2010.”
“In effect,” Senior Justice Eastaugh wrote in today’s opinion, “because Schuh and Schmidt were not married, they could not achieve the tax exemption’s maximum benefit.”
And since the only reason they are not married is because the state currently prohibits same-sex marriage, there is a clear equal protection violation.
The state’s appeal charged that the equal protection clause had not been violated because the Alaska constitution’s marriage amendment precluded the claim, that the couples “are not situated similarly with married couples,” and that “the tax exemption program was not facially discriminatory.”
The Court carefully offered that the marriage amendment ban does not, on its own, bar the couples’ claims. Recognizing the nature in which the two constitutional provisions (the ban found in Article 1, Section 25 and the equal protection clause in Article 1, Section 1) could potentially conflict with each other, Eastaugh wrote that “Constitutional provisions that potentially conflict must be harmonized if possible. In this instance, though, the marriage ban and equal protection clause did not conflict with one another; that “the Marriage Amendment did not preclude the plaintiff’s equal protection claims.”
The state’s contention that same-sex couples are “not situated similarly with married couples,” with respect to the benefits issue, similarly failed to constitute a legal defense of the discriminatory policy.
Many same-sex couples are no doubt just as truly closely relat[ed] and closely connected as any married couple, in the sense of providing the same level of love, commitment, and mutual economic and emotional support, as between couples, and would choose to get married if they were not prohibited by law from doing so.
The decision held that committed same-sex domestic partners — and this is really important — “are similarly situated to those opposite-sex couples who, by marrying, have entered into domestic partnerships formally recognized in Alaska.” The Superior Court’s assertion, that denying access to the exemption program to same-sex couples represented unequal treatment under minimum scrutiny, was upheld.
For these reasons, we AFFIRM the superior court’s declaration that ‘in combination,’ [the property tax exemptions for senior citizens and disabled veterans limited to opposite-sex couples] violate Alaska’s equal protection clause by ‘imposing a spousal limitation that facially discriminates against same-sex domestic partners.'”