Democrats Use Driver’s License Bill As Vehicle For Gay Rights Fight

A bill that would save military spouses the trouble of going to the DMV has triggered an unlikely battle over gay rights in the state legislature.

When Rep. Doug Isaacson introduced the “Military Spouse Residency Relief Act” he didn’t expect it to be controversial.

“No! I was thinking this would be a yawner – that it would just be one of those things everyone would get behind because it’s a benefit to military,” says Isaacson, a North Pole Republican.

The bill isn’t complicated. Members of the military are already allowed to keep their out-of-state driver’s licenses, so this legislation would extend that perk to their husbands and wives.

What it wouldn’t do is extend it to their domestic partners. Because the bill specifically uses the word “spouses,” same-sex couples aren’t covered by this bill because Alaska doesn’t allow gay marriage. In 1998, Alaska was the first state to define marriage as existing between a man and a woman, and it doesn’t recognize gay marriages conducted in other states.

Without the ability to get married, there’s no way for same-sex couples to avail themselves of the driver’s license benefit. Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage Democrat, sees that as a violation of another part of the Alaska Constitution – the equal protection clause. He says even if the bill deals with a tiny perk, the language in it is still discriminatory.

“I think it’s important that we not permit this kind – even if it’s a small amount – of unequal treatment to continue,” says Gruenberg.

Gruenberg first offered an amendment to include same-sex partners in the bill during a hearing of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee last week, and it failed on party lines. On Tuesday, the same amendment was offered in a different committee. And again, it failed, with one Democrat voting for it and five Republicans objecting. If the bill makes it to the House floor, the Democratic minority may offer up the amendment again.

Both times the amendment has been offered, opponents rejected it on fairly technical grounds rather than delve into the policy question. The State Affairs Committee found the amendment inappropriate because adding same-sex partners to the legislation would have required a title change for the bill. The Military and Veterans Affairs Committee shuttled it because the Alaska Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on whether same-sex partners should be included under the umbrella of “spouse” over the next few months. The Court heard Schmidt and Schuh v. Alaska — a case concerning property tax exemptions for married couples — in 2012, and a decision is still pending.

Gruenberg doesn’t think that’s how this bill should be handled. He says the Legislature regularly considers policy that would affect pending litigation. For example, a bill that would make it optional for local governments to fund their school districts was introduced after the Ketchikan Gateway Borough filed a lawsuit on the same subject.

“The Legislature shouldn’t shirk its duty to just wait for a court to decide something, when really it’s a moral issue that’s involved – the question of equal rights,” says Gruenberg.

But Isaacson still thinks the wait-and-see approach is the right one to take with his bill.

“‘Spouse’ is ‘spouse’ however defined, and if the law changes to say that ‘spouse’ means ‘partner,’ then this will still be a benefit to all parties concerned. So that amendment is unnecessary to the intent of the bill.”

The State of Alaska already extends benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees, after a different Supreme Court decision in 2005 determined that offering them only to straight couples violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.