Judge backs exemption for Alaska same-sex couples

DAN JOLING - Associated Press
In this Aug. 3, 2010 file photo, Julie Schmidt, left, Gayle Schuh , middle, and Jeffrey Mittman with the American Civil Liberties Union speak at a news conference in Anchorage, Alaska. An Anchorage judge on Monday ruled same Alaska same-sex couples are entitled to the same senior citizen and disabled veteran property tax exemptions as married couples. The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the state of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage on behalf of Schmidt and Schuh and two other same sex couples, claiming the state of Alaska's tax assessment rules providing exemptions for senior citizens and disabled veterans discriminate against same sex couples. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska's same-sex couples are entitled to the same senior citizen and disabled veteran property tax exemptions as married couples, a state judge has ruled.

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner said in his decision that the state's marital classification violates the Alaska Constitution's equal protection clause. The ruling was signed Friday and released Monday by ACLU of Alaska.

ACLU of Alaska and the national American Civil Liberties Union challenged tax assessment rules on behalf of three couples from Anchorage who were denied tax breaks that they would have been entitled to if they were married. The couples were in committed relationships but were treated as roommates rather than families, according to the Alaska ACLU.

The group's spokesman Jeffrey Mittman said Monday one couple, Julie Schmidt and Gayle Schuh, had been together 34 years.

"Gayle and I moved, built a home and a life here because we love what Alaska has to offer," Schmidt said in the ACLU announcement. "It hurt that the state that we value so much treated us like strangers. It is gratifying to finally have our relationship recognized."

Assistant Attorney General Rachel Witty said by email that the state is reviewing the 34-page decision and assessing its options.

Alaska voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in 1998 that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Alaska tax exemption law allows seniors over age 65 and disabled veterans to exclude from their property tax the first $150,000 of assessed value of their primary home. Married couples get the exemption whether the home is owned by the husband, the wife or both.

Pfiffner in his ruling noted that Schmidt, 67, and Schuh, 62, co-owned a home in Eagle River since 2006. Schmidt qualified for the exemption but was unable to exempt the full amount because the law deemed her the occupant of only half the house.

Two other plaintiffs — Julie Vollick, a permanently disabled military veteran, and her former same-sex domestic partner, Susan Bernard — had a similar experience.

Vollick co-owned a home with Bernard from 2004 until 2010. If Vollick and Bernard had been married, Vollick would have received a $528 greater tax benefit from the exemption, the judge said. The couple has since separated.

The other plaintiffs were Fred Traber, 62, and Laurence Snyder, 69, a same-sex couple who share a condominium in Anchorage. Snider qualified for the tax exemption. The home is in Traber's name. Snider was unable to claim any part of the tax exemption.

Pfiffner said the state did not sufficiently distinguish this case from a 2005 Alaska Supreme Court ruling that addressed discrimination based on sexual orientation. In that case, also brought by the Alaska ACLU, the court said state and municipal same sex employees could not be denied partner benefits given to married couples.

Pfiffner said the marriage amendment speaks only to the definition of marriage and does not, as the state contended, mention the associated benefits of marriage. He agreed with the ACLU that a state statute excluding same-sex couples from "being entitled to the benefits of marriage" cannot supersede the constitutional right to equal protection.

Mittman said the ACLU had sought to avoid litigation by negotiating with the state to have the previous ruling apply to tax exemptions.

"Couples need to be treated fairly," he said.