A whistleblower has stepped forward in a court case alleging that Alaska’s government deliberately continued to deny benefits to same-sex married residents four years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, making such treatment unconstitutional.
The case involves Denali Nicole Smith, an Alaskan resident who in 2019 was informed by the government that she and her wife, a fellow Alaskan resident, were ineligible to receive payments from the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), the state’s oil wealth fund, because of Alaska’s 1998 constitutional amendment barring the government from recognizing same-sex marriage.
As Slate explains, this reasoning flies in the face of three different court decisions: a 2014 U.S. District Court decision blocking Alaska’s same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional, the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality and a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision re-stating (as was clearly stated in the 2015 decision) that, in addition to marriage, same-sex couples are entitled to the “constellation of benefits” normally given to different-sex married couples.
After Smith filed her suit, the Alaska Department of Law pledged to investigate and the PFD Division quickly informed her that she’d been approved to receive benefits. However, the Division refused to say why she’d suddenly been approved, whether she’d continue to receive PFD benefits in future years, or how many other legally married same-sex couples had been denied in past years, and it gets worse…
Though the state’s attorney general Kevin G. Clarkson says the PFD Division isn’t aware of anyone else who had been denied benefits like Smith, an anonymous whistleblower who plans to testify has claimed that the Division had an official policy of denying benefits to same-sex spouses. Furthermore, the state’s official booklet explaining how to receive PFD benefits, which is updated annually, explicitly states that same-sex residents may not receive benefits because of the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
So while Smith may have her PFD benefits, for now, there’s no telling how many of the 321 same-sex couples who have wed in Alaska since 2014 have been denied or how many didn’t apply at all because of the state booklet saying that they’d be denied.
This is all the more troubling because roughly 30 U.S. states still have same-sex marriage bans on their books, even though the bans were declared unconstitutional in 2015. If Alaska is any indication, other states may be using their own bans as justification to deny certain benefits to same-sex couples.