November 1, 2005
Case Law Development: Laws Prohibiting Benefits for Partners of Government Employees in Same-Sex Relationships Unconstitutional
The Alaska Supreme Court has held that state and municipal programs that provide employee benefits for spouses but not for same-sex partners violate the Alaskan Constitutional provision providing for "equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law." The court concluded that the state's marriage amendment, limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, did not preclude an equal protection challenge to laws discriminating against same-sex couples in the area of government benefits. The court further concluded that the goverment benefits laws did not substantially advance any of the legitimate government interests offered as justifications.
ACLU v. Alaska, 2005 Alas. LEXIS 148 (October 28, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://www.state.ak.us/courts/ops/sp-5950.pdf (last visited November 1, 2005 bgf)
The court first had to decide with the Alaskan Constition's Marriage Amendment precluded challenges by same-sex couples to government policies that discriminate between married and unmarried couples. The court concluded that the marriage amendment referred only to marriage and did not apply to government benefits. "That the Marriage Amendment effectively prevents same-sex couples from marrying does not automatically permit the government to treat them differently in other ways." In its equal protection analysis, the court noted that Alaska's constitutional protections are "more robust" than the Equal Protection clause of the United States Constitution. “Alaska's Equal Protection Clause requires more than just a rational connection between a classification and a governmental interest; even at the lowest level of scrutiny, the connection must be substantial.”
The court next analyzed whether the classification was discriminatory. The court rejected the approach taken by many other state courts that have concluded that these programs discriminate only on the basis of marital status, not gender or sexual orientation, as all married persons could get benefits and all unmarried individuals could not. The Alaska Supreme Court, however, concluded that the “proper comparison is between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples, whether or not they are married.” The court found that the benefit programs were facially discriminatory, so that no discriminatory intent need be proven.
Finally, the court applied the sliding scale analysis used to test equal protection claims under the Alaska Constitution. The court concluded that, even under the most minimal scrutiny, the benefits laws did not substantially advance the asserted government interests.
The court questioned whether the government’s interest in cost control was an accurate expression of its interest, since that goal was in tension with the goal of promoting marriage (since the more employees who married, the more costs to the government). Rather, the court found more credible the government’s explanation that it was reducing costs by limiting benefits to those who have “very close relationships” with employees. However, the court observed that, while this is a legitimate government goal, “we do not see how an absolute exclusion of same-sex domestic partners from being eligible for benefits is substantially related to this interest. Many same-sex couples are no doubt just as "truly closely related" and "closely connected" as any married couple … and would choose to get married if they were not prohibited by law from doing so.”
The court also rejected an argument that the benefits laws substantially advanced a government interest in administrative efficiency, noting that many other states and municipalities (including the University of Alaska) provide benefits to same-sex partners.
Finally, while the court agreed that making benefits available to spouses may advance the government’s interest in promoting marriage, “denying benefits to the same-sex domestic partners who are absolutely ineligible to become spouses has no demonstrated relationship to the interest of promoting marriage.”
The court thus declared the marriage limitation in the benefits laws unconstitutional but stayed entry of judgment for 180 days to allow the legislature to act and to allow the parties to provide supplemental pleadings on the issue of remedy.