Two Alaskans fight for LGBTQ equality in the courts

If you ask the average person what the big name issues are in the movement for LGBTQ equality, property tax exemption is nowhere near the top of the list. The issues that tend to receive the most attention from national and statewide LGBTQ advocacy organizations are gay marriage, employment nondiscrimination, and more recently, transgender equality.

But in states like Alaska, where gay marriage is banned, where the mayor of our largest city vetoed a nondiscrimination ordinance inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, and our state legislators have not proven themselves open to or ready to take on legislation on a state level, advancing LGBTQ equality has to sometimes be taken with incremental steps. And this is where local organizations like the ACLU of Alaska are perfectly placed to have an impact.

“There are over 1,000 ways in which that same-sex couples and families are discriminated against in matters both large and small,” says Jeffrey Mittman, Executive Director. “Sometimes we can address large groups of those inequalities, but sometimes we have to take a focused, narrow approach that reverberate and have side-effects that contribute to breaking down the walls of discrimination.”

The case of Schmidt and Schuh vs. Alaska is a prime example.

“For a couple like Gayle & Julie who have been together for over thirty years, being legally classified as ‘simple roommates’ is an injustice that stings and denies them the full measure of equality to which they’re entitled.”

– Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU of Alaska

Julie Schmidt and Gayle Schuh are retired teachers who have been together 33 years. When Canada legalized same-sex marriage, they traveled to Vancouver to get married. They share a bank account and own a home together in Eagle River. They vacation together. They volunteer together as board members of Identity, Inc. They donate to Pride Foundation  together. Every day and in every way, Julie & Gayle’s lives are as entwined as any married couple’s and yet, when Julie turned 65 and applied for the tax exemption for senior citizens, the state of Alaska treated them as if their union and commitment meant nothing.

Activists Together: Julie Schmidt and Gayle Schuh

Under the Alaska Senior Citizen and Disabled Veteran Property Tax Exemption law, disabled veterans and residents 65 and over are exempt from taxation on the first $150,000 of their property’s assessed value. However, same-sex couples receive a reduced property tax exemption compared to married, opposite-sex couples.

For couples who have chosen to build lives here and invest in Alaska’s future, this is a slap in the face. And according to the ACLU of Alaska, it is also unconstitutional. Last year, the organization filed a lawsuit against the State of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage asking the Superior Court of Alaska to put an end to the discriminatory policy. Arguments should likely begin in July.

Even in the friendliest of states, it takes massive amounts of time, energy, and money to win the big battles in the movement for LGBTQ equality. While Alaskans work on building their power to make progress on the big-name issues, we are fortunate to have an organization like the ACLU of Alaska to keep the movement progressing in the short-term by tearing down the walls of structural inequality brick by brick.

To learn more about Schmidt and Schuh vs. Alaska, visit their case profile page