Gay Partner of Fallen Trooper Seeks Benefits; Missouri Supreme Court Ponders Pension Changes

Article excerpt

JEFFERSON CITY The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday morning in a case that could allow same-sex partners of state employees to receive death benefits from a state pension system.

Currently, such benefits are limited to surviving married spouses and dependent children. That excludes gay and lesbian couples because Missouris constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman only.

Contesting the employee benefits laws constitutionality is Kelly Glossip, who was in a relationship for nearly 15 years with Missouri Highway Patrol Cpl. Dennis Engelhard.

Engelhard was killed in the line of duty on Christmas Day 2009. He was helping a motorist when he was hit by a car that had lost control on an icy Interstate 44 in Eureka.

Glossips attorney, Maurice B. Graham of St. Louis, told the court that the relationship Engelhard and Glossip shared was almost synonymous with opposite-sex, husband and wife relationships.

The couple owned a home together in Franklin County and had joint checking and savings accounts. They were rearing Glossips son.

Graham argued that the 2001 law spelling out that only opposite- sex spouses are eligible for death benefits sets up a special category based on sexual orientation.

Legislators were making it clear that gay people in a committed relationship were not in any circumstance going to get these death benefits, Graham said.

The lawyer for the Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees Retirement System argued that the pension law provides support for those most likely to be dependent opposite- sex spouses and children and does not violate the equal protection clause of the constitution.

Nationally and in Missouri, statistics show that both partners in same-sex couples are more likely to be employed, compared with spouses who are married, said Assistant Attorney General James R. Ward.

This is not a special law, Ward said. Its open-ended because the class as described under the statute is for spouses.

Interjected Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith: But if youre gay, you cannot marry.

The state contends that the law limiting death benefits is related to a legitimate government interest: making objective decisions about beneficiaries and controlling costs. Given those factors, the court shouldnt substitute its judgment for the Legislatures decision, the states brief says.

Most of the judges questions during the arguments focused on whether laws dealing with sexual orientation should trigger heightened scrutiny by the court to enforce the constitutions guarantee of equal protection. …