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State Supreme Court Rules Same-Sex Partners Can Access Death Benefits

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex partners are eligible for death benefits, even though they are prohibited from marrying by the state Constitution.

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The case was brought by Deborah Harris, whose partner Kerry Fadely was murdered in 2011. Fadely was a manager at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage, and was shot and killed on site by a disgruntled ex-employee. When Harris applied for survivor benefits, she was denied by the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board on the grounds that the couple was not married as required by statute. Harris appealed the decision, arguing that their relationship had spanned more than a decade and that the two would have gotten married if the state allowed it.

“It’s pretty humiliating to be told as you’re grieving from the loss of the person you love most on this earth that you’re relationship was essentially worthless and your family was not the kind worth protecting,” says Lambda Legal’s Peter Renn, one of the attorneys on the case.

The Alaska Supreme Court sided with Harris on equal protection grounds. The court reasoned that because same-sex partners cannot legally get married, the denial of survivor benefits on that basis would essentially block a whole class of people from ever accessing them. Harris’ benefits claim will now be sent back to the workers’ compensation commission.

This is the second case the court has taken up this year where it has reaffirmed that the marriage ban does not extend to same-sex benefits. The court had the option of striking down the marriage ban entirely, but chose instead to rule on narrower grounds. Renn says that was expected, but that the ruling weakens the argument for the marriage ban.

“If you can’t discriminate with respect to benefits associated with marriage, then it stands to reason you really shouldn’t be able to discriminate with respect to marriage itself,” says Renn.

The Alaska ban is the currently being challenged in federal court with arguments scheduled for October.

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