Alaska News

US Supreme Court decision could have implications for Alaska's same-sex marriage ban

With the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Monday to let a handful of same-sex marriage appeals court decisions stand, watchers of the court point to the moment as a strong affirmation that nationwide marriage equality is right around the corner.

A challenge to Alaska's same-sex marriage ban will be heard in court Friday, and for marriage equality supporters the timing couldn't be better.

"Everyone I've talked to is hopeful and excited," said Drew Phoenix, executive director of Identity Inc., an Anchorage-based nonprofit that advocates for LGBT issues in Alaska.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess is set to hear oral arguments Friday in Hamby v. Parnell, a direct challenge to Alaska's same-sex marriage ban. Attorneys for the five couples represented in the suit argue that Alaska's constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman denies them equal protection and due process rights. The state has fought to uphold the ban, passed by voters in 1998, arguing that changing the amendment should be left up to the voters, not the courts.

But it is the courts that have steadily overturned same-sex marriage bans across the country. The Supreme Court's Monday decision raises the current tally of states allowing same-sex marriage to 24, with six other states poised to also strike down bans in the near future. Advocates of same-sex marriage point out that represents over half of the U.S. population.

So with the Alaska's challenge around the corner, what does Monday's decision mean for the state?

"The Supreme Court's action this morning sends an unmistakable signal that the Court is comfortable with the lower court decisions in favor of marriage, and we think that lower courts will read that loud and clear," ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker said in an email. The organization filed a dual friend-of-the-court brief in the Hamby case with the NAACP, Anchorage Branch in August.

Decker noted that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments to the marriage challenges in Idaho and Nevada Sept. 8. He said his organization, which has represented numerous Alaska LGBT equality cases, is confident that with today's decision the 9th Circuit Court will rule in favor of marriage equality based on the higher court precedent. A decision from the 9th Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over Alaska, would also strike down Alaska's marriage ban. Decker said that decision could come at any time. It's unclear how soon after the Alaska arguments Burgess will make his decision.

Caitlin Shortell, one of three attorneys representing the Alaska plaintiffs in Hamby v. Parnell, said Monday's Supreme Court decision wouldn't affect how they proceed with arguments Friday, unless the 9th Circuit Court rules before then.

Phoenix said the Supreme Court's Monday decision didn't really surprise him. He noted that support for same sex-marriage has steadily increased, with a February Public Policy Poll showing 47 percent of Alaskans supported marriage equality, up 9 points from last year.

He said it was "ridiculous" that Alaskans who live, work and raise children in the state have to go Outside to get married.

"They have every right to marry here," he said.

Supporters plan to rally outside the Anchorage Federal Courthouse at 3 p.m. Friday following the oral arguments.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.

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