Three years ago, the United States Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and allowed gay men and lesbians to openly serve in the military. Their husbands and wives are also entitled to the same federal benefits they would get if they were straight. But in Alaska, these spouses are not recognized because of a ban on gay marriage that was added to the State Constitution.
On Monday, the Alaska House wrestled with that tension when it took up legislation extending a small perk to military families. A measure adding same-sex partners to the bill was rejected.
One of the facts of life in the armed services is you may be asked to move a lot. According to the Department of Defense, military families move 10 times more often than civilian families.
The “Military Spouse Residency Relief Act” was introduced to make those moves easier, and to show that Alaska wants to cater to the troops who are stationed here. All the bill does is let military spouses keep their driver’s licenses, saving them the trouble of going to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Even the lawmakers who want the bill changed like the overall idea. Anchorage Democrat Max Gruenberg made that clear on the House floor on Monday.
“The bill itself is non-controversial, and I strongly support the bill and will be voting for the bill,” he said.
Gruenberg saw just one problem with it.
“The only troubling aspect is the use of the single term ‘spouse.’”
Because Alaska has a ban on same-sex marriage, the term “spouse” does not allow the partners of gay servicemen to take advantage of the benefit, even if they married in another state.
Gruenberg offered an amendment to the bill making it explicit that gay military couples should get the driver’s license exemption, too. The State of Alaska already includes same-sex partners in its employee benefits because of a 2005 court decision, and Gruenberg’s measure copied that language and applied it to the military. Same-sex partners would have to meet a list of conditions to qualify, like having lived together for at least a year and co-managing their finances.
He argued his amendment is tailored to avoid getting into a debate over gay marriage in Alaska, and that it follows legal precedent and the military’s own rules.
“We’re looking at, once again, following the lead of the military – all branches of the service in this country – and I think the trend of most Americans who would like to see people treated equally,” said Gruenberg.
Other members of the Democratic minority agreed, and stood up in support of the bill. Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage framed it as a civil rights issue.
“It’s a matter of respect for people who serve for our armed forces, regardless of who they choose to love.”
But many members of the Republican-led majority were unfriendly to the amendment, including bill sponsor Doug Isaacson. He said the courts are still weighing the issue of same-sex rights, and that until they decide differently, the relationship between husband and wife should be elevated.
“Our State Constitution, as we’ve heard, makes a distinction,” said Isaacson. “We prioritize according to what the voters have told us. And the voters have told us the definition of marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Isaacson represents North Pole, and the Eielson Airforce Base is part of his district. He said there is widespread support for the bill as written.
“Even with the gay spouses, none have asked me to extend this benefit to others,” said Isaacson. “They recognize that in order to help the majority of the spouses who are affected, this is a necessary bill.”
The amendment ultimately failed on a 14-22 vote. While no Republicans spoke in favor of the measure, three – Cathy Munoz of Juneau, Mike Hawker of Anchorage, and Lindsey Holmes also of Anchorage — broke with their caucus to support it. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the majority, was the only member of his party to vote against it.
The bill itself passed unanimously, and will now be sent to the Senate.
Watch the House Floor session courtesy of Gavel Alaska. Remarks on the amendment start at 57:30: