Senator pushes measure to strip away Alaska's ban on same-sex marriage

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- State Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor, on Monday proposed a measure to strip away Alaska's voter-backed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, calling it a "blot on our state constitution."

It was one of two gay-rights developments in the Legislature Monday. A measure proposed by another Democrat to bar discrimination of those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual had its first hearing, drawing more than two dozen sometimes emotional speakers.

"It's a civil rights bill and people all over the states are watching with great interest and concern," state Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, told the Senate Health and Social Services Committee.

Even with a shift in public opinion on gay rights issues nationally, both the proposed amendment and Gardner's proposal to bar discrimination likely face trouble in the GOP-led Alaska Legislature.

Alaska voters in 1998 overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment defining a marriage as between a man and a woman. Conservatives say they still believe that's the right view.

On Gardner's bill, several Republicans said they hadn't had time to read it. Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he was opposed to new protections based on sexual orientation.

But Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and chairman of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee where Gardner's bill was heard, said the measure is addressing a real problem and that he generally supports it. He said he doesn't back gay marriage.

French said it seems clear the U.S. Supreme Court eventually will declare all state bans on gay marriage unconstitutional and he felt compelled to act now rather than wait.

"The legal underpinnings that oppose same-sex marriage have been knocked out. There's nothing left," French told reporters.

In recent months, federal courts have rejected laws barring same-sex marriage in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act in ruling that the federal government must provide benefits to married same-sex couples in states that allow such unions.

And public opinion has shifted. A poll earlier this year by the left-leaning organization Public Policy Polling found that a slim majority of Alaska voters now support gay marriage.

French's proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 30, aims to remove the existing gay marriage ban. If he could win approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate, Gov. Sean Parnell -- who supports the ban -- would allow the issue to go to voters in November, his spokeswoman said.

On the Senate floor late Monday afternoon and in an earlier presentation to reporters, French quoted from the Lower 48 court rulings that found individuals were seeking the right "to make deeply personal choices about love and family free from government interference."

Eventually, a same-sex marriage will be "simply a marriage," French said.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, a Republican from Wasilla, said Monday evening that he believed a marriage should remain between a man and a woman and that at any rate, he didn't think French's proposal would pass.

Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he also supported traditional marriage but was open to "an honest discussion" of the matter.

Sen. Lesil McGuire of Anchorage and a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, said she wanted time to assess French's proposal. "I believe in love and I don't tend to discriminate against people who are gay and love each other."

Gay rights advocates said they were delighted.

"Every day we have same sex couples coming to us asking what can we do to change the current ban," said Drew Phoenix, the new executive director of Identity Inc., an Anchorage gay and lesbian advocacy and education group that is working with the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce to make Anchorage more inclusive and diverse. "They want to be married in the state they call home."

Conservative activist Jim Minnery is against lifting the ban, arguing that children deserve to be raised by a mother and father in a strong, traditional marriage.

"As certain parts of marriage are demeaned ... who is to say all the other parts wouldn't eventually be taken out?" said Minnery, president of the Christian group, Alaska Family Council. Already, he said, there's a push to allow polygamy as a result of last summer's Supreme Court decision.

He's planning an event for Christians later this year to turn around "this new culture that has bought this whole gay marriage mindset."

"This is a battle of our times," Minnery said.

Gardner separately proposed adding "sexual orientation, gender identify or expression" to the classes of Alaskans protected from discrimination in housing, jobs, loan and credit applications and public places such as restaurants.

More than 25 people, straight and gay alike, testified, sometimes emotionally, in support of her proposal, Senate Bill 131. The only person who testified in opposition said she was worried only that more protections for gay and lesbian people would somehow dilute those afforded to Alaska Natives.

Kimberly Hubbard, her voice shaking, told the Senate Health and Social Services Committee that she only has been comfortable being herself on the job since 2011, when she started working for the state.

"I am no longer fearful of what might happen if I slip up and say that I'm a lesbian, that I might lose my job, a promotion, consideration or a pay increase," Hubbard said. "I can't begin to accurately express in words the anxiety and stress and fear that comes along with having to constantly hide who you are because there's no legal protection or recourse."

Terri Lauterbach said she worked more than 30 years for the Legislature but retired last summer and now can speak up in a new way. She said her experience of raising three children, now grown, was like most legislators' except in two ways. One, she couldn't cover them with her health insurance.

And two, her kids insisted on calling the weekly family Scrabble and Cranium game night "the Night of Satanic Perversions because they needed to find the humor in how people talked about their two mothers in the 90s," Lauterbach told the committee. "I hope we're not still in the '90s with that kind of talk."

She asked legislators to think about how they want their own children and grandchildren treated. Should a perception of a person's sexual identity be the basis for a decision on an apartment or business loan or job?

"I really hope not. We want all Alaskans to be judged fairly on qualifications and merit," she said.

Mildred Boesser, 88, told the committee she is Christian, heterosexual, and a mother of four married for 65 years to the same man. She said she was saddened by the reality that in Alaska, a person could be fired, evicted or denied credit "simply because of who they happen to love."

After the hearing, Huggins said he had yet to assess the chances of Gardner's bill.

"People shouldn't be discriminated against. I'm not sure where you draw the line as to the technicality of that. But by the same token, what people do in their private lives, that's their business, not mine," the Senate president said. "My concern is that we've almost paralyzed society where you can't do anything, the person that owns the property, what have you."

Asked whether he was referring to whom property owners could rent to, he said "yeah, it's their property."

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