The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a Highway Patrol trooper's same-sex partner who was seeking survivor benefits.
Highway Patrol Cpl. Dennis Engelhard was killed on Christmas Day in 2009 when he was struck by a vehicle while investigating a traffic accident on Interstate 44 in Eureka, outside of St. Louis. Missouri offers a payment to the surviving spouse of a Highway Patrol officer killed in the line of duty.
The statute governing survivor benefits defines marriage as between a man and woman. Missouri also has a prohibition on same-sex marriage in the state Constitution and in state law.
Engelhard's partner, Kelly Glossip, did not receive the benefit. Glossip argued it violated the equal-protection clause of the state constitution.
The Supreme Court in a 5-2 ruling concluded Glossip is ineligible for survivor benefits because the two were not married - not because Glossip is gay.
"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 Supreme Court wrote. "The result cannot be any different here simply because Glossip and the patrolman were of the same sex. The statute discriminates solely on the basis of marital status, not sexual orientation."
The high court said Glossip could have challenged the prohibition on marrying in Missouri or that if the couple married in another state, Glossip could have challenged Missouri's law preventing recognition of same-sex marriages for the purpose of benefits. The court said it was upholding the Legislature's ability to award and deny survivor benefits based upon whether the claimant was married to the trooper when the official died.
Tony Rothert, an attorney who represented Glossip, said it is disrespectful for the state to treat the men as strangers and Glossip is devastated by the court's ruling. Glossip and Engelhard lived together since 1995.
"While we're disappointed and disagree with the majority's reasoning, we are hopeful that the people of Missouri will see how important it is to pass legislation to prevent discrimination against lesbians and gays," said Rothert, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.
"Limiting benefits to married couples while denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry is discrimination, plain and simple."
Missouri Supreme Court Judges Richard B. Teitelman and George W. Draper III dissented from the high court's majority ruling, which was not attributed to any particular judge. Teitelman wrote the statutes discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
"The plain meaning and intended application ... 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 state high court heard oral arguments in the case this past February and asked attorneys to submit additional written arguments following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down a federal law barring legally married same-sex couples from receiving benefits from the federal government.
The Missouri attorney general's office defended the Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees' Retirement System. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office declined to comment about Tuesday's ruling.
The court's ruling "will go down in history as a blemish," said A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, a Missouri group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.