The First Marriage Amendment
In 1998 an amendment was made—by the vote of the people—to Alaska’s Constitution banning same-sex marriage. Section 25 of the amendment excluded same sex couples from the benefits of marriage and ruled against gay marriage. For extra emphasis, it stated that unions between same-sex couples granted in any other state or country would be recognized by the state of Alaska. Neither domestic partnerships nor civil unions were mentioned. This amendment made Alaska the first state in the country to change its constitution for the purpose of redefining marriage.
Jay Brause and Gene Dugan, who had been together twenty years, then challenged the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski believed that an individual’s right to choose a spouse is a fundamental one, and decided that the couple has a right to a marriage license unless the state can come up with a reason for why it would jeopardize the people of Alaska. In his statement he said “it is the duty of the court to do more than merely assume that marriage is only, and must only be, what most are familiar with.” Furthermore, the state Constitution, in Article 1, Section 3, says “no person is to be denied the enjoyment of any civil or political right because of race, color, creed, sex or national origin.”
The state then demanded that the case be sent to the Supreme Court; it was sent, but never moved forward.
In 2005, a Supreme Court ruling demanded that same-sex partners of local and state employees receive benefits. Although the state’s definition of marriage had not changed, the court’s ruling stated that married, heterosexual couples and same-sex partners are “similarly situated” in life. This does not imply much legally, apart from the benefits for public employees and their partners, but it certainly shows a shift in mindset, that the commitment between gay couples is comparable to that of heterosexual partners.
Things might be changing in Alaska though. According to a New York Times poll forty-five percent of Alaskans approved of same-sex unions, compared to the twenty-three percent approval rate from 1994-1996.
Republican Senator Fred Dyson, who opposed gay marriage, even said “maybe in my old age I’ve gotten a little wiser…I have a lot of compassion for the situation they’re in. I’m glad to do anything I can to make sure gay couples have all the legal rights that heterosexuals have.”
Legally, however, the situation is complicated and daunting. In order to adjust the definition of marriage the constitution would have to be amended. For this to happen, a law would have to pass the House and Senate, be signed into law by the governor and then be put on the next election ballot for consideration (and approval) by constituents.
Although it seems that the mentality regarding same-sex marriage may be changing, there are many opponents who still hold government positions (from when the amendment was approved), and Governor Sean Parnell still supports the current definition of marriage between a man and a woman.
There does not seem to be much action in Juneau other than a bill, proposed by Rep. Beth Kerttula, which would prohibit discrimination on a basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity. Residents of Anchorage will vote on April 3 on an initiative that would serve the same purpose as Kerttula’s bill.
The Alaska Family Council is heading opposition to that initiative.
Alaskans Together for Equality (ATE) is a political non-profit that led the “fight against the April 2007 anti-gay advisory vote (on same-sex partner benefits).” The site stills seems to be under construction as the organization breaks into two new groups: Alaskans Together for Equality, Inc., a non-profit that can lobby the Alaska Legislature for equal rights for LGBTQ Alaskans, and Alaskans Together Foundation, Inc.
- Can same-sex couples marry here? No.
- Can same-sex couples enter into civil unions or domestic partnerships? No.
- Do same-sex partners of public employees get some benefits? Yes.