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Couples file suit to overturn Alaska's ban on same-sex marriage

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

A lawsuit filed Monday by a group of same-sex couples hopes to challenge Alaska's same-sex marriage ban, arguing that it violates their due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit, Hamby v. Parnell, filed on behalf of Anchorage resident Matthew Hamby, his partner, and four other couples, is considered the first challenge of the Alaska constitutional amendment since courts around the nation have started to strike down marriage bans, according to attorney Caitlin Shortell.

Shortell is one of three attorneys representing the plaintiffs. The lawsuit challenges the Alaska constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, arguing that it violates the couples' due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Alaska voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 that said marriage could only exist between a man and woman.

But since then, the courts have slowly begun to overturn similar amendments in other states. Even in Alaska, the state Supreme Court has made incremental decisions to uphold certain specific rights to same-sex partners, including that the state can not deny spousal benefits to couples. Last month, the state supreme court ruled that couples are entitled to the same property tax exemptions, despite the fact that they cannot legally marry in Alaska.

Shortell has been working on filing the lawsuit since last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act to expand benefits to same-sex couples. The decision didn't create universal marriage equality, but has allowed for decisions to be made in lower courts which have slowly chipped away at bans in other states.

Shortell interviewed numerous couples before finally moving forward with the five included in the suit.

The couples represented in the case vary in everything from age to occupation. All but one one live in or near Anchorage. Four of the five are married in other states or Canada. Some have children, others do not. Some were married years ago, others as recently as March. One couple has not married yet, but is challenging the ban in the hopes that they will be able to marry in the state they call home.

"All came forward in that they felt strongly about claiming equality for all Alaskans," Shortell said.

Shortell said at the Alaska ban is particularly striking in its singling out of one group of people to deny them rights, something she said has never been done in the history of Alaska's constitution. That constitution is known for its strong protections, she said.

"It's out of sync with the spirit of Alaska," she said.

Allison Mendel, who is also representing the plaintiffs along with Shortell and attorney Heather Gardner, said there was no way she could not get involved with a suit like this. Mendel ran the opposition campaign to the constitutional amendment in 1998 and has brought multiple suits on behalf of same-sex couples over the years.

She expects the state to defend the ban, though the attorneys are committed through the entire process.

"Our eye is on appeal," Mendel said. "Win or lose at trial court, we'll take it to the Ninth Circuit (Court of Appeals.)"

Alaska Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills had no comment on the suit, since the department had not yet received it as of Monday afternoon. However, she said the department will defend the constitution.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at or on