By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in Alaska must receive certain property tax exemptions given to married couples, despite a ban on gay marriage, the state Supreme Court ruled on Friday.
The decision in a lawsuit brought by three Anchorage same-sex couples represented a blow to the state, which had prevented gay and lesbian couples from taking advantage of a tax break for senior citizens and disabled veterans that, in some circumstances, takes into account marital status.
The ruling follows high-profile victories in recent months by gays and lesbians seeking the right to wed in several U.S. states.
Marriage rights have been extended to gay couples in 17 states and the District of Columbia in a trend that gained momentum when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
In 1998, Alaska voters amended the state's constitution to restrict marriage to between a man and a woman.
In its ruling on Friday, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a 2011 lower court decision and found the state's tax exemption program "facially discriminates between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples."
"For purposes of analyzing the effects of the exemption program, we hold that committed same-sex domestic partners who would enter into marriages recognized in Alaska if they could are similarly situated to those opposite-sex couples who, by marrying, have entered into domestic partnerships formally recognized in Alaska," the Alaska Supreme Court's written opinion stated.
Alaska and the municipality of Anchorage exempted from municipal property taxation $150,000 of the value of a residence for senior citizens and disabled veterans, but the full value of the exemption might not be available if another resident at the home was not married to the claimant.
Contending that was unfair because they were not allowed to wed in Alaska, the three Anchorage same-sex couples sued, and in its ruling the Alaska Supreme Court agreed the state cannot withhold the tax break.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska welcomed the decision.
"The Supreme Court very clearly states that this kind of discrimination is not OK," said Joshua Decker, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska. "It's un-American and it's un-Alaskan for a state to make gays and lesbians pay more in taxes."
Emails and phone calls to the Alaska Department of Law were not returned.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis & Kim Coghill)