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In Alaska, DOMA ruling shifts gay rights discussion forward

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

Alaskans watched celebrations erupt across the country, Wednesday, unsure how the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage equality would impact them -- and what, if anything, might change for gay and lesbian families in the 49th state.

The court's 5-4 ruling in United States v. Windsor found that same-sex married couples are entitled to the same federal benefits and overturned The Defense of Marriage Act. Supporters of gay rights and gay marriage called the rulings historic; LGBT advocates in Alaska said the response was immediate.

"I'm already hearing rumblings from couples ... who are wanting to sue the state for those benefits now that DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional,” said Felix Rivera, board member for Alaskans Together for Equality, an educational non-profit focused on advocating for LGBT rights.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, made no decisions on marriage bans in other states. In another case revolving around same-sex civil rights, the high court dismissed Hollingsworth v. Perry, an appeal of California's Proposition 8. The dismissal essential legalized gay marriage in California, though it bore no impact on marriage laws in other states, Alaska among them.

In 1998, Alaska adopted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, essentially making same-sex marriage illegal in the state.

Phyllis Rhodes, executive director of Anchorage-based LGBT nonprofit Identity, Inc., said she would be prepared to take legal action if necessary. A retired federal employee, she wants to make sure her partner of nearly 25 years, Pam Richter, has access to the benefits she is legally entitled to under federal law.

“It does mean a lot to me,” she said. “I don't want to move to California.”

Soon, it will mean even more. After the Supreme Court announcement, Richter proposed to Rhodes. Rhodes said the two had an agreement that they wouldn't consider marriage until the federal government lifted its ban.

How the DOMA ruling affects Alaskans

What federal benefits apply to couples who live in states with same-sex marriage bans is still being figured out, according to Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Peter Renn. Lambda Legal is the nation's oldest and largest LGBT legal organization.

How does the DOMA ruling impact Alaska, with its sizable population of federal workers?

Renn, speaking from Los Angeles, said it all comes down to what the law says about where couples “celebrated” their marriage versus where the couple resides:

  • Immigration and military benefits often apply to where the marriage was celebrated;
  • IRS and Social Security benefits most often apply to where the couple lives.

Essentially, if a couple living in Alaska married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, they could be entitled to some benefits, but not all.

Renn did note that some of the federal benefits are unclear on the issue or do not address them at all.

He said it's likely the Obama Administration will offer guidance on that in the coming months.

"At the moment, it's a complicated picture," Renn said.

Alaska Constitution bans same-sex marriage

Tom Stenson, legal director of the ACLU of Alaska said it's likely that service members will be most immediately impacted by the DOMA ruling, since many laws on their benefits consider where the marriage was celebrated, and not necessarily current residence.

How the ruling will impact other Alaska same-sex decisions is something that will be decided in the coming months and years. Stenson said right some same-sex marriage cases are facing scrutiny under state law. While the DOMA ruling will most likely influence those cases, the issue will ultimately fall to state law.

Whether or not the ruling will lead to a repeal of Alaska's constitutional amendment, which limits marriage to one man and one woman, is still a question. In 1998, Alaska voters strongly supported adding the amendment to the constitution. Then, 68 percent of voters supported the amendment, and it was easily passed by the legislature.

But in the 15 years since, the tide has shifted. Both Alaska senators support marriage equality, with Alaska's lone congressman, Don Young, opposing gay marriage but saying it should be up to the state's to decide. A February 2013 Public Policy Polling poll found that 43 percent of Alaska's support same-sex marriage.

However, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell supports the amendment and with conservative legislature, it's unlikely there's much political will among Juneau lawmakers.

“We don't have a legislature right now that would move on this,” said Rivera. “We most certainly don't have two-thirds (needed to repeal the amendment.)

That repeal would be the long term goal for Alaska, Stenson added, though it's "not something that's going to happen today." Instead, changes to Alaska's marriage laws will likely make their way through the court system first.

“I do think like all marriage amendments, the clock is ticking on that one,” Stenson said. “It's not going to be a permanent fixture in our constitution.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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