On Friday, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples are eligible for survivor benefits — specifically workers’ compensation. Deborah Harris had filed suit after her partner had been killed while working at the Millennium Hotel by a disgruntled former employee, but the hotel refused to provide Harris with any insurance benefits for her partner’s death. The Court concluded that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage did not justify this denial of benefits, and ordered the lower court to reconsider on behalf of Harris. This was the Court’s second such ruling in favor of same-sex benefits this year, and the third overall.
Back in April, the Court similarly ruled that same-sex couples should have equal access to a state property tax exemption already enjoyed by different-sex couples. In that case (Schmidt and Schuh v. Alaska), the Court explained that whether the couples were actually married or recognized as such was irrelevant. “The correct classes for comparison,” they wrote, “are same-sex couples who wish to marry and opposite-sex couples who wish to marry, not married couples and unmarried couples.”
But this approach is not new for the Court; it actually reflects another ruling from back in 2005 (Alaska Civil Liberties Union v. Alaska), in which the Court ruled unanimously that it’s unconstitutional to deny equal benefits to state employees with same-sex partners. They reasoned that though the state’s ban precludes same-sex couples from marrying, “it does not explicitly or implicitly prohibit public employers from offering to their employees’ same-sex domestic partners all benefits that they offer to their employees’ spouses.”
Alaska was one of the first states to approve a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage back in 1998. It simply stated, “To be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.” Unlike amendments that came later — particularly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in 2003 — the amendment did not contain any language barring the recognition of “identical or substantially similar” relationships or “domestic unions” that same-sex couples might enter into.
As a result, the Alaska Supreme Court has been free to interpret the amendment as simply dictating the use of a single word, “marriage,” without considering all of the benefits and responsibilities typically tied to that word. In last week’s Harris v. Millennium Hotel decision, they specifically noted that if the amendment were to be interpreted to prohibit such benefits, it would likely violate the federal equal protection clause. So far, they have not yet been asked to consider whether it actually does.