JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Over the years, the Alaska Supreme Court has chipped away at laws deemed discriminatory against gay couples. In 2005, for example, the high court found it unconstitutional to deny certain benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees.
But it wasn't until now — after U.S. Supreme Court decisions led to federal courts around the country striking down bans on same-sex marriage over the last year — that some activists felt the time was right to challenge Alaska's first-in-the nation constitutional ban on gay marriage.
On Monday, five couples filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn the ban approved by voters in 1998. The plaintiffs— four couples married outside Alaska and one unmarried couple — say the ban violates their right to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
Sean Egan, one of the plaintiffs along with his husband, David Robinson, said somebody had to do this. Egan, 28, is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Robinson is in the military. He said it's offensive they've had to "jump through so many hoops" to prove they're married so they could live together in family housing or Robinson could use the gym. He said his mom wanted nothing to do with him when he came out as gay, and while his dad has come around, the only real family he has is Robinson.
And to have the state "just, I don't know, spit on that and treat us as if we were strangers, it's offensive and it does cut very deep," he said. "...It hurts more than any physical pain I've experienced in my life."
The Human Rights Campaign says only three states — North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana — do not have legal challenges pending to same-sex marriage bans. Spokesman Charles Joughin said the bulk of the active cases followed last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving a range of federal benefits.
The court, last June, also left in place a trial court's decision striking down California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Joughin said judges that have handed down decisions since then generally have referenced at least one of those cases. He said it was only a matter of time "before all of these discriminatory bans are struck down."
Allison Mendel, an attorney for the couples in the Alaska case, agreed the U.S. Supreme Court decisions "opened the floodgates" for challenges around the country. She was an attorney involved in the case over employee benefits, filed in 1999 — on the heels of the voter-approved constitutional ban — and decided in 2005. She said they wouldn't have won an attack on the constitution back then.
But she said times have changed, attitudes have changed, and the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing for federal benefits for married gay couples made "the more disconcerting and peculiar" the idea of being recognized as married for one purpose but not another.
Matt Hamby and Chris Shelden, the lead plaintiffs in Alaska's same-sex marriage case, said they are encouraged by what they're seeing in courts across the country.
Shelden, 44, said Alaska was heralded for the progressive nature of its constitution at statehood. The 1998 amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman "set us way back," he said.
"I think Alaskans are ready for this," Shelden said.
Lin Davis, who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit over state benefits with her now-wife, Maureen Longworth, said she is allowing herself to be excited and to believe the way will be cleared for same-sex marriage to be made legal nationwide. The women, who have been together since 1988, were married in California in 2008.
Davis said it has been a long haul but she sees the discrimination "falling apart."
"People have come up to us, especially in the last year, and said, 'I didn't really get it. I didn't understand what you guys were fighting for, and now I get it and I'm so happy for you.' It's been really magnificent," she said, adding later: "You kind of grow up feeling like you're just not part of the society, that you're outlaws and things don't apply to you at all, but now it's very magnificent."
Alaska's attorney general, Michael Geraghty, who is one of the named defendants in the Alaska lawsuit, said in February that he would fight to uphold the state's constitution. The Department of Law did not have immediate comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.
Jim Minnery, with the conservative Alaska Family Action, sent an email missive Tuesday, saying his group prays that Geraghty's team "will have the wisdom and fortitude to put forth the absolute best legal strategy to protect what the people of Alaska overwhelmingly voted on in 1998."