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Alaska Supreme Court decision affords gay couple equal property tax rights

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex couples in Alaska are entitled to the same property tax exemptions of opposite-sex couples.

The ruling is the latest in a series of Supreme Court opinions validating that same-sex couples in Alaska are entitled to same rights as everyone else, despite the fact that same-sex marriage in Alaska is still banned under the Alaska Constitution. The court ruled in 2005 that the state could not deny benefits to same-sex couples.

The court's opinion affirmed that two of the couples who cannot marry or have their marriages recognized under state laws cannot benefit from the tax-exemption program to the same extent as heterosexual couples who are married or may marry. The exemption therefore violates the couples’ equal protection under the Alaska state constitution.

Three couples challenged the Municipality of Anchorage over its inability to extend property tax exemptions to people over the age of 65 or a disabled veteran. Two of the couples were co-owners of their home, but could only receive 50 percent of the exemption on the property because they were not married. Under the law, the property owners would be exempt from paying taxes on the first $150,000 worth of the assessed value of the property if they met the age and veteran requirements.

The third couple was not included in the state's appeal because the home was not co-owned.

Decision took 17 months

The couples brought the case to Superior Court, which ruled in their favor. The state and Municipality of Anchorage appealed. The ACLU of Alaska, American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of David Wright Tremaine challenged the appeal on behalf of the couples.

Oral arguments were heard in November 2012. It took the court 17 months to come to its decision.

Despite the long wait, ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker praised the courts affirmation Friday. The long wait proves that the court wanted to take its time to make sure it got the decision right, he said.

"We are pleased that Supreme Court recognized today once again that discrimination has no place in Alaska," said Decker. "That it is un-Alaskan and un-American for people to pay more in taxes because they happen to be gay or lesbian."

'Wonderful feeling'

Gail Schuh said she and her wife, Julie Schmidt, were relieved to have resolution Friday. The couple was one of the original three who appealed in the case. Although they had the property tax exemption applied after the Superior Court decision, there was the prospect the Supreme Court would overturn it and the couple would owe back taxes.

The affirmation finally resolved that. Schuh said it also gave the couple more recognition in the eyes of the courts.

"It's just a wonderful feeling," Schuh said.

Still, she says more needs to be done. Many survivor benefits are still not recognized for Alaska same sex couples. For example, property deeds in Alaska are split 50-50 between same-sex couples, while a married same sex couples can have joint ownership that makes no distinction over who owns how much of a property. If one partner dies with no will in place, the property is then passed to the deceased's biological relatives.

Schuh and Schmidt a will that protects against that happening, but it's an extra step they've had to take that an opposite-sex married couple would not need to do.

'March toward reality'

Whether the ruling will have larger implications remains to be seen, Decker said. He and his team at the ACLU were still looking over the opinion to determine what its broader implications could be.

But he said the opinion clearly fits in with a “march toward equality” in Alaska and the nation. As courts and voters make steady progress toward overturning same-sex marriage bans in across the country, this is a small step in Alaska's own history.

"The amount you pay on your tax bill shouldn’t hinge on who you happen to love," Decker said.