Anti-gay-benefits amendment proposed by an Alaska lawmaker

The Alaska Legislature could soon be deliberating a proposed amendment to the state Constitution to nullify a court decision ordering the state to pay benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees. Senate Judiciary Chairman Ralph Seekins told the Legislative Council Thursday evening that he has a draft constitutional amendment that could be introduced by his committee as early as next week.

A constitutional change would require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate and approval by a majority of voters in November's election.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in October that denying gay couples the same public employee benefits as married couples life and health insurance, plus retirement and death benefits violates the Alaska Constitution's equal-protection clause. The court noted that unmarried straight couples also are denied benefits, but they unlike gay couples have the option to legally marry.

Following that ruling, Gov. Frank Murkowski and state Sen. Fred Dyson separately called for changing the state's Constitution to strike the ruling.

"We have no choice but to defend our actions against an interventionist court that is, in my opinion, hard of hearing," Dyson said Thursday. "We're going to give the people a chance to speak again, this time maybe a little bit louder."

The Legislature in 1996 passed a law that said a same-sex couple is not entitled to the benefits of a married couple, which the Alaska Supreme Court found unconstitutional. In 1998, voters approved an amendment to the state's constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Dyson declined to say what the draft amendment specifically says. However, he said the debate so far has been whether to expressly ban benefits for unmarried couples or to leave the decision to the state and its political subdivisions.

A Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he would wait to see what comes to the panel before making a judgment, but he appeared skeptical.

"You're going to have a tough time convincing me that this is an issue important enough to require an amendment to the state Constitution," said Sen. Hollis French.

Michael Macleod-Ball, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, one of the plaintiffs that brought the case to the Supreme Court, also said he would wait and see.

"If they are trying to add something that says we can discriminate gays, I think that's going to run afoul of the Constitution," he said, reports the AP.


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