Jurisprudence

Alaska’s Discrimination Against a Gay Couple Shows the Continued Threats to Marriage Equality

The White House lit in rainbow colors
The White House alit in rainbow colors on June 26, 2015, to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

More than four years after the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, Alaska appears to be engaged in flagrant discrimination against same-sex couples.

On Wednesday, Denali Nicole Smith, a resident of Alaska, filed a lawsuit against the state for denying her benefits because she is married to a woman. Smith’s wife, Miranda Murphy, is an Alaska resident and member of the Armed Forces who is currently stationed in Florida. Under Alaska law, military spouses are eligible for the state’s oil wealth fund, the Permanent Fund Dividend, when their families are stationed out of state.

But when Smith applied for the fund in 2019, her application was denied. The state cited Alaska laws that bar the government from recognizing any same-sex marriage or providing any benefits to same-sex couples. A representative from the Permanent Fund Dividend also told Smith that she would’ve received her check “if she were married to a man.”

There’s a problem with this explanation: A federal court permanently blocked Alaska’s same-sex marriage ban in 2014, ruling it unconstitutional. A year later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that same-sex couples in every state have a fundamental right to marry. And in 2017’s Pavan v. Smith, the court clarified that states must provide same-sex couples with “the constellation of benefits … linked to marriage,” not just a mere marriage license. Alaska is thus defying the law by refusing to recognize Smith and Murphy’s marriage.

Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, has asserted in response to Smith’s suit that the state does not discriminate against same-sex couples in the distribution of oil fund money. She told me on Friday that her office is working “as quickly as possible” to determine “what happened in this case.” But Caitlin Shortell, one of Smith’s lawyers, told me on Friday that Mills’ claim “is not accurate in light of our information.” Shortell said that multiple Alaskans accompanying same-sex spouses have been denied PFD funds despite the court order freezing the state’s marriage ban. She’s seeking discovery to learn how many other people were unlawfully refused payments by the state.

Smith’s lawsuit serves as a reminder that the fight for marriage equality in the U.S. is far from over. There are myriad ways that states can discriminate against same-sex couples, plucking stars from the “constellation of benefits” attached to marriage and hoping the courts won’t care. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement left Obergefell in a precarious position; the ruling’s fate is now in the hands of a Supreme Court majority that may not support constitutional protections for LGBTQ people.

Alaska does not seem eager to fight Smith’s suit, so this dispute may be resolved quickly (although no solution can undo the stigma inflicted by the state’s initial discrimination). Still, at some point, a case like Smith’s could reach SCOTUS, giving the conservative justices an opportunity to roll back or even overturn Obergefell. Many Americans have come to see marriage equality as a done deal. But as Alaska rather cruelly reminded Smith, gay couples’ right to equal marriage can never be taken for granted.