Will Alaska be same-sex marriage's Last Frontier?

By Austin Baird

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

JUNEAU, Alaska — Stephanie Figarelle and Lela McArthur traveled more than 3,300 miles from their Anchorage home to get married, and in high fashion they became the first same-sex couple to exchange vows at the Empire State Building.

The ceremony was put on by event planner Colin Cowie, and the couple was treated to some of the best New York had to offer: rings from DeBeers, a stay at the Pierre Hotel and gowns from Kleinfeld.

But another thought weighed on some who attended the wedding.

"It's rather sad that someone has to travel all the way to New York to get married because they don't have the ability to do so legally (in their home state)," said Cowie.

"Equality's a beautiful thing," Figarelle said. She also told reporters she hopes to see Alaska legalize same-sex marriage.

It appears unlikely that will happen anytime soon. Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, including Alaska's nearest neighbor, Washington state just last week. But a ban was crafted into the state constitution almost 15 years ago and federal law passed during that era both give advocates hurdles to clear.

While the newlyweds are legally married in New York, their marriage certificate carries no legal weight in Alaska.

The 1998 amendment defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act limits rights provided by same-sex marriages to only the state in which a couple was married.

Since Alaskans approved its amendment almost 2-to-1, public opinion is shifting on same-sex marriage.

Forty-five percent of Alaskans approved of unions for people of the same gender in 2010, according to a New York Times poll, almost double the 23 percent approval recorded from 1994-96.

Even shifting opinion couldn't make same-sex marriage legal, nor would simply passing a law.

To amend the Alaska Constitution, a bill has to pass the House and Senate, and then be signed into law by the governor, just to open up a ballot measure for voters to consider changes to the constitution. Then at the next election, a majority of voters would have to approve it.

But many lawmakers who wrote the language of the original amendment and passed it into law have only shuffled offices in the Capitol.

Gov. Sean Parnell was then a senator from Anchorage, and he helped pass the amendment through two committees and again through the Senate. Now he's governor and would have to sign into law any bill that called for a ballot measure. Plenty of other opponents to same-sex marriage remain in office and positions of influence.

Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said the governor "has supported and continues to support Alaska's constitutional provision defining marriage between a man and a woman."

Advocates hoped a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which overturned California's same-sex marriage ban, would have wider impact so court challenges could take place around the country. But the Ninth Circuit judges offered a narrowly-worded opinion only guaranteed to affect California.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Alaska, said Alaska has never enacted marital relation benefits or domestic partnership laws for same-sex couples equivalent to marriage. California did, and those were the basis of the court's decision. Mittman said without those in place in Alaska, it would be difficult to make an argument unless there is an authoritative ruling on the California decision or another case by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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