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Alaska Court Hears Case Over Same-Sex Survivor Benefits

Wednesday May 14, 2014
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The Alaska Supreme Court is considering whether the partner of a woman killed in 2011 is entitled to survivor benefits from the woman’s employer, given the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

State law allows for widows or widowers to receive survivor benefits if their husband or wife dies in a work-related injury; children are also eligible but if there are no children and is no surviving spouse, benefits can go to other specified family members. Same-sex couples do not receive such benefits because they are not allowed to marry in the state.

The high court heard oral arguments Tuesday, APRN reported (http://bit.ly/1nJPACl ).

Deborah Harris’ long-term partner Kerry Fadely was shot to death at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. Lamda Legal staff attorney Peter Renn, who represented Harris, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Harris had to move out of the couple’s home shortly after Fadely’s death because she couldn’t afford to make the rental payments on her own.

"Tragedy doesn’t discriminate, and neither should the state," he said. The state declined to intervene in the case, he added.

Attorney Donald Thomas, who argued on behalf of the Millennium Hotel, which did not provide Harris with survivor benefits, said the Alaska constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage implicitly denies any person who is not validly married the rights and benefits of marriage. Renn called it discriminatory.

While the case does not directly challenge the same-sex marriage ban, the court could take up that issue, Renn said.

"We’ve given the court an option of menus. It could take a smaller bite and decide only the death benefits issue that is raised here for Ms. Harris. But it could also decide to take a somewhat broader step and declare the marriage amendment itself unconstitutional," he said.

This is the third case before the high court related to benefits for gay couples. In 2005, and again earlier this year, the court ruled that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against. Renn said there is strong precedent for a decision in Harris’ favor.

Renn said a ruling was possible later this year.

Separately, five couples sued in federal court on Monday, challenging the ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional.

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