On October 29, 2011, Kerry Fadely was gunned down at her place of work, the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage. Kerry’s same-sex partner of 10 years, Debbie Harris, per state and federal law, is denied survivor benefits because, in legal terms, the couple are rendered strangers.
On September 24, 2012, Lambda Legal, acting on Debbie Harris’ behalf, filed papers with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board challenging its denial of survivor benefits. The board cannot decide matters of constitutional law but must be petitioned before the claim can advance to an appeals board, which in turn will likely deny the claim per current law.
Permission from the appeals board will allow Harris’ legal team to take their challenge directly to the Supreme Court of Alaska where the court will consider if the state’s denial of same-sex survivor benefits is lawful.
To be clear, Harris is not challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage directly. She is, however, challenging the state’s failure to allow same-sex couples the rights associated with marriage and the provisions, like survivor benefits, that are currently given to heterosexual couples but not gay couples.
Most critically, the claim notes Harris was forced to move out of the home she and Fadley had shared together because, without her partner’s wage or the help of survivor benefits, she was unable to afford staying there.
“The safety net to catch families in times of crisis should not have a gay exception,” said Peter Renn, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney, in a press release. “Imagine losing the person you love most in your life, under the most horrifying of circumstances, and then imagine the government telling you that, legally, your relationship meant nothing. That’s what same-sex couples in Alaska face.”
Harris’ legal team claims that the discrimination Harris, and also same-sex couples, has been subjected to violates both Alaska’s guarantees of equal protection and treatment, and those made in the U.S. Constitution.
“When Kerry was killed, it was like a hole had been punched in my heart,” Harris said in a press statement. “We loved each other and were together for more than a decade in a committed relationship. But because we could not marry, I was unable to receive the same financial protections that the state provides to married heterosexual couples. As a result, shortly after Kerry was killed and while I was still grieving, I had to abandon the home that we had shared.”
Below you can see a video interview with Harris about this case:
While this case does not deal directly with the federal Defense of Marriage Act, there are several DOMA cases that stand to be considered by the Supreme Court of the United States in the near future.
As this report notes, it is now looking unlikely that SCOTUS will hear those cases before the November presidential elections. Cases include the Proposition 8 case, not technically DOMA affiliated yet with important legal implications nonetheless, and Windsor v United States in which Edith Windsor is challenging DOMA’s rendering her and her deceased partner legal strangers.
Image taken from video under fair use terms.