ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Alaska wrongly denied benefits to some same-sex spouses for years by claiming their unions were not recognized even after courts struck down gay marriage bans, court documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
The agency that determines eligibility for a yearly oil wealth check paid to nearly all Alaska residents denied a payout for same-sex spouses or dependents of military members stationed in other states for five years after a federal court invalidated Alaska's ban on same-sex marriage in 2014, the documents show. The practice persisted after the Supreme Court legalized the unions nationwide in 2015.
In one email from July 2019, a same-sex spouse living out of state with his military husband was denied a check because "unfortunately the state of Alaska doesn't recognize same sex marriage yet," employee Marissa Requa wrote to a colleague, ending the sentence with a frowning-face emoji.
The practice by the Permanent Fund Dividend Division continued until several people questioned or appealed being denied checks in 2019. Denali Smith, who was denied benefits, sued the state that November, seeking an order declaring that Alaska officials violated the federal court ruling and Smith's constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.
Smith and the state settled the lawsuit Wednesday. Alaska admitted denying benefits to same-sex military spouses and dependents for five years in violation of a permanent injunction put in place by the 2014 U.S. District Court decision.
The state also vowed to no longer use the outdated state law, stop denying military spouses and dependents oil checks going forward and update enforcement regulations. There were no financial terms.
In Alaska, the oil wealth check is seen as an entitlement that people use to buy things like TVs or snowmobiles, fund college savings accounts or, in rural Alaska, pay for high heating and food costs. The payouts come from a fund seeded with oil money. Last year, nearly every resident received $992. The year before, the amount was $1,606.
About 800 pages of emails provided by the state for the lawsuit show a clear misunderstanding or outright disregard of the 2014 precedent and reluctance to reach out to the attorney general's office for guidance.
The emails, redacted of identifying information about oil check applicants, show that as late as 2019, division employees were claiming Alaska did not recognize same-sex marriages, often pointing to an outdated and unenforceable section of state law still on the books as justification.
"It seems like none of them all the way up to the director understood that this was a permanent injunction, meaning if you enforce the law after this date, you're in violation of a court order and you're violating people's rights," said Anchorage attorney Caitlin Shortell, one of the lawyers who successfully sued to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage and later filed the lawsuit on Smith's behalf.
The state Department of Law released a statement saying the unenforceable law will remain part of the state's statutes until lawmakers remove it.
"As for the application of that law which led to the recently settled lawsuit, that policy has been corrected by the Department of Revenue," the statement said. It added that it's ensuring every eligible Alaskan receives an oil check as the governor directed after hearing about the issue in 2019.