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Missouri Supreme Court rules against survivors benefits for same-sex couples

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled against the same-sex partner of a deceased highway patrolman who has been trying for almost four years to obtain survivor's benefits.

The effect will likely bar anyone in a same-sex relationship in Missouri from collecting survivor's benefits.

The surviving partner in the case before the high court, Kelly Glossip, had challenged two statutes: one that provides benefits to surviving spouses of highway patrolmen killed in the line of duty, and the second that specifies that “spouse’’ refers only to a man or a woman in a heterosexual marriage.

With the assistance of the ACLU, Glossip contended that the restrictions denying him benefits violated his equal protection rights under the Missouri constitution.

The state Supreme Court disagreed, ruling 5-2on Tuesday that Glossip was denied benefits because he wasn’t married, “not because of his sexual orientation.”

“The result cannot be any different here simply because Glossip and the patrolman were of the same sex,” the court wrote in its majority decision. “The statute discriminates solely on the basis of marital status, not sexual orientation… If Glossip and the patrolman had been of different sexes, Glossip would have still been denied benefits no matter how long or close their relationship had been.”

The fact that Glossip couldn’t legally have married Dennis Englehard, a Missouri state trooper who was killed on Christmas Day in 2009, wasn’t addressed – since Glossip did not challenge the provision of the state constitution barring same-sex marriage.

Voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved the ban in August 2004.

Lower courts also had ruled against Glossip. He had been in a 15-year relationship with Englehard, who was killed while assisting a motorist. The two had a home, a joint checking account and were raising a child.

“This case is decided on very narrow grounds,” the Supreme Court ruling said. “Glossip is not eligible for survivor benefits because he was not married to the patrolman. If Glossip and the deceased patrolman had been married in another state” in which same-sex marriage was legal, “Glossip could have challenged the statute that prohibits recognizing same-sex marriages for purposes of Missouri benefits. But they were not.”

“The only decision the court makes here has nothing to do with the rights of same-sex partners,” the decision continued. “Instead, the court merely upholds the General Assembly’s right to award and deny survivor benefits based on whether the claimant was married to the patrolman at the time of death.”

Teitelman’s dissent pulls no punches

But Missouri Supreme Court Judges Richard Teitelman and George Draper disagreed, in a dissenting opinion written by Teitelman.

Teitelman wrote that “for decades, indeed centuries, gay men and lesbians have been subjected to persistent, unyielding discrimination, both socially and legally.” The statutes in question, he went on, “bear witness to that history and help ensure that this unfortunate past remains a prologue to the continued state-sanctioned marginalization of our fellow citizens.”

“The plain meaning and intended application of [the statutes in question] is to specifically discriminate against gay men and lesbians by categorically denying them crucial state benefits when their partner dies in the line of duty,” Teitelman wrote. “This type of intentional, invidious and specifically targeted discrimination is fundamentally inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.”

The majority opinion, Teitelman wrote, “employs a definition of ‘spouse’ that operates to the unique disadvantage of gay men and lesbians, even when, like Cpl. Engelhard, they devote their lives to the defense of the same rule of law that relegates them to the status of second-class citizens.”

“Marriage simply cannot be a proxy for financial interdependence when only gays and lesbians -- a relatively small, readily identifiable and historically marginalized group -- are categorically excluded from being legally married,” he added.

PROMO criticizes ruling

PROMO, the state's most visible advocacy group for the LGBT community, called the court's decision "a disappointment."

A.J. Bockelman, PROMO's executive director, said in a statement, "The opinion offered by the court is shameful. The heart of this case is about access to survivor benefits in the death of a loved one. The Missouri Supreme Court declined to recognize the ability of Kelly Glossip to bring this case forward because he and Cpl. Dennis Englehard were not married in a jurisdiction where marriage has since become legal.....The statement by the court completely sidesteps the fact that couples cannot access the benefits of marriage in Missouri.”

Bockelman added, “With the wave of lawsuits and marriage cases going forward around the country, this statement is an embarrassment to justice, equality, and will be go down in history as a blemish. Make no mistake, equality and justice will prevail, and the fight will continue.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.