Alaska Supreme Court hears same-sex survivor benefits case

The Alaska Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that challenges whether or not same-sex couples should receive survivor benefits.

Deborah Harris’ long-term partner Kerry Fadely was shot and killed when working at Millennium Hotel in 2011. According to Alaska law, spouses receive survivor benefits if their husband or wife is killed from a work-related injury. Same-sex couples do not because same-sex marriage is illegal in Alaska.

Harris said after her partner was killed, she had to leave their home because she did not receive the benefits.

“I still don’t have a home, not really…” she haltingly told the press after the oral arguments closed. “I work on the Slope for three weeks because housing’s included. And the other three weeks I stay with my children still, because you know, you don’t plan on these things happening, so you don’t have the resources…”

Attorney Donald Thomas argued on behalf of Millennium Hotel, which declined to provide Harris with death benefits. “Thus if the marriage amendment is precluding same sex couples from marriage, it is inherently, implicitly denying them – any person who’s not validly married, the rights and benefits of marriage,” he told the Court.

Lambda Legal staff attorney Peter Renn represented Harris. He said same-sex couples are denied the same safety nets as opposite-sex couples.

“State law absolutely discriminates against loving, committed same-sex couples in this context, and it has absolutely no reason for doing so,” he told the press after the arguments finished.

Renn said the case is not directly challenging the same-sex marriage ban, but the Court could choose to take up the matter. “We’ve given the Court an option of menus. It could take a smaller bite and decide only the death benefits issue that is raised here for Ms. Harris. But it could also decide to take a somewhat broader step and declare the marriage amendment itself unconstitutional. So that is available to them. They could go there.”

This is the third case before the state’s Supreme Court that has challenged unequal benefits for same-sex couples. In both 2005 and 2014 the court ruled that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against. However, the Court did not strike down the marriage ban amendment.

Renn said the Court will likely issue a ruling late this year or early next year.

Monday five couples filed a case in federal district court directly challenging the ban. A circuit court in Arkansas overruled that state’s same-sex marriage ban last week.

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