The Alaska Supreme Court ruled on Friday the state acted unconstitutionally by refusing to grant same-sex couples a special property tax exemption afforded to senior citizens and disabled veterans who live with their spouse in their home.
In the 45-page decision, the court determined that the State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage’s decision to withhold the $150,000 tax exemption from same-sex couples violates equal protection rights under the Alaska State Constitution.
“Same-sex couples, who may not marry or have their marriages recognized in Alaska, cannot benefit or become eligible to benefit from the exemption program to the same extent as heterosexual couples, who are married or may marry,” the ruling states. “The exemption program therefore potentially treats same-sex couples less favorably than it treats opposite-sex couples even though the two classes are similarly situated.”
Because same-sex couples cannot legally marry in Alaska, the state prior to the ruling only allowed them an exemption for half the value of their homes.
The case, Schmidt and Schuh v. Alaska, was filed by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska on behalf of three same-sex couples. According to the ACLU, the decision applies to all same-sex couples in the state.
One couple — Julie Vollick and Susan Bernard — jointly purchased their Eagle River home in 2004. Vollick, who retired after 20 years in the United States Air Force and has service-related disabilities, was seeking the exemption based on her veteran status.
The other couples — Julie Schmidt and Gayle Schuh, who have been together 33 years, and Fred Traber and Larry Snider, who have been together 28 years — were seeking to qualify for the benefit as senior citizens.
Schmidt, who moved with Schuh to Alaska from Illinois after they both retired from careers in education, said in a statement the court ruling validates their relationship.
“Gayle and I built a home and a life here because we loved what Alaska had to offer,” Schmidt said. “It hurt that the state that we loved so much treated us like strangers. It is gratifying to have our relationship recognized.”
In ruling in favor of the couples, the court affirms a decision by a lower court in Alaska granting summary judgment to all three same-sex couples who filed the lawsuit.
But the Supreme Court excludes from the decision one same-sex couple, Traber and Snider. Traber was the sole owner of the home, but 62 so not yet a senior citizen, and Snider was found not to have an ownership interest in the home.
Although attorneys for the couples argued they should be able to receive the exemption because laws based on sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny, the court didn’t get that far in its ruling because justices were able to determine the state’s practices were unfair based on minimum scrutiny.
“Because the tax exemption program affects the couples’ economic interests, it is subject to at least minimum scrutiny,” the ruling states. “Because minimum scrutiny resolves this case, we do not need to consider the couples’ contention that we should apply heightened scrutiny.”
Although there was no dissent in the ruling, Justice Daniel Winfree wrote a concurring decision in favor of the same-sex couples, saying he would have decided the case on non-constitutional grounds.
Joshua Decker, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said the ruling affirms no one is second-class under the law — whether they be gay or straight.
“Families in Alaska deserve better than a second-class system of laws for same-sex couples who are just as committed to each other as heterosexual couples,” Decker said. “Our senior citizens and veterans should not have to pay more taxes just because they happen to be gay or lesbian.”
Gay couples in Alaska don’t have access to marriage in the state because Alaska voters made a ban on same-sex marriage part of its state constitution in 1998. The state is one of four in the country that doesn’t have marriage equality or pending litigation seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples.