Alaskan Judge Protects Benefits for Same-Sex Couples

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday it is unconstitutional to deny benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees, a victory for gay rights advocates in one of the first states to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Overturning a lower court ruling, the state high court said barring benefits for state and city employees' same-sex partners violates the Alaska Constitution's equal protection clause.

"It's a good day for Alaska families," said Carrie Evans, state legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign (search).

She said the unanimous decision sets the stage for Alaska to join 11 other states that already have laws, policies or union contracts providing employee benefits in all eligible same-sex unions.

Anchorage city attorney Fred Boness said city officials would not appeal the court's decision.

But Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski (search) was "outraged" by the ruling and directed the attorney general's office to determine the best way to overturn it, said his spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg.

The high court said the disputed benefits plans will stand until a remedy is reached in future court hearings.

Nine gay or lesbian government workers and their partners in 2002 joined the Alaska American Civil Liberties Union (search) in appealing the lower court ruling. The case stems from a 1999 lawsuit filed against the state and the Municipality of Anchorage after voters passed a constitutional amendment blocking state recognition of gay marriage.

In the 2001 Superior Court ruling overturned Friday, Judge Stephanie Joannides said the state and city did not have to extend benefits to same-sex couples, equating them with unmarried heterosexual couples who also are not eligible.

The high court said that comparison failed to acknowledge the fact that heterosexual couples can choose to get married, while homosexual couples cannot.

Michael Macleod-Ball, director of the Alaska ACLU, said the Alaska Supreme Court ruling could have an effect on other states.