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State of Alaska may consider same-sex partners of employees as 'immediate family'

Suzanna Caldwell

The Alaska State Personnel Board is considering including same-sex partners as “immediate family” when it comes to who is eligible for family medical leave.

At its meeting next month, the board will consider changing a rule that would add same-sex partner to the definition of what constitutes immediate family. That means state employees would be allowed to take family leave in the event their partner has a serious illness.

Proposed change would offer gays, lesbians and others another small legal victory of sorts in Alaska, where a constitutional amendment bans the state from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Despite the 1998 ban, advocates have slowly but surely advanced the civil rights of same-sex couples:

  • In 2005, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that state employee benefits extended to married couples must also be applied to same-sex couples.
  • In 2012, the U.S. Senate voted against reauthorizing the don't ask, don't tell military doctrine that denied gays and lesbians recognition by the government. Alaska's two U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, voted with the majority to end the ban.
  • Last year, an Anchorage couple brought their case to the state supreme court, arguing that same sex couplesshould be entitled to the same property tax exemptions as straight, married couples.
  • On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade the government from extending federal benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
  • In July, LAMBDA Legal filed a notice of appeal with the state Supreme Court after survivor benefits were denied to an Anchorage lesbian whose longtime partner was murdered on the job.

Medical rights for loved ones, spouses

Tom Stenson, legal director for the ACLU of Alaska, said a decision on the property rights of Alaska same-sex couples should be decided in the next few months.

The ACLU of Alaska helped bring the issue of medical leave to the personnel board in early this summer by filing a letter on behalf of a Juneau correctional officer who was initially denied medical leave when her partner was diagnosed with cancer. Leave was granted after the letter was filed, Stenson said, but an additional change to the rule would provide more clarity for the state.

Stenson hopes even critics of same-sex marriage understand the importance of people being allowed to be with their loved ones during times of illness, regardless of sexual orientation.

“This is not a special right, this is basic, fundamental human right,” Stenson said, “and selectively denying it to LGBT people is really awful.”

The family leave issue is the only same sex couple issue the board will address. Nancy Sutch, deputy director of the state government's personnel office, said in an email that the board's rule change is intended to apply to medical leave only.

The personnel board is set to meet Sept. 19.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com