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Alaska Supreme Court says same-sex couples entitled to death benefits

By Steve Quinn

JUNEAU Alaska (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in Alaska should be eligible to receive death benefits when a partner dies despite a state ban on gay marriage, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled on Friday in its second decision in four months to favor granting benefits to gay couples.

In ruling that a 1998 amendment to the state constitution forbidding same-sex marriage did not extend to barring death benefits for same-sex couples, the court overturned a decision by the Alaska Workers Compensation Board.

The board had earlier denied a death benefits claim by an Anchorage woman, Deborah Harris, whose same-sex partner was fatally shot at work three years ago by a disgruntled employee at an Anchorage hotel where both were employed.

The board, in denying the claim, had cited the state’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as “only between one man and one woman.” But the state Supreme Court ruled that utilizing a narrow definition of a widow to exclude same-sex partners “violates the surviving partner’s right to equal protection under the law.”

“Debbie had a tragedy happen in her life – her longtime life partner was killed – then another tragedy was not being recognized for who she was – a life partner – by the legal system,” Harris's attorney Eric Croft said, praising the ruling.

“Financially this is important, but it’s important to recognize that same-sex couples deserve equal treatment,” he added.

The ruling comes as a series of federal judges have knocked down state bans on gay marriage across the United States in rulings that, if upheld, could substantially expand gay marriage in the United States. Most of the rulings have been put on hold pending appeal.

In the Alaska death benefit case, the state high court noted that Harris and her partner, Kerry Fadely, had been in “an exclusive, committed, and financially interdependent relationship” spanning more than 10 years, and had raised children from previous relationships.

Attorneys for the Millennium Hotel and its insurance company declined to comment.

In April, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled the same sex couples there must be afforded the same property tax exemptions for senior citizens and disabled veterans as are given to traditionally married couples.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)

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