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Alaska denied benefits to gay couples despite court rulings

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Alaska denied benefits to gay couples despite court rulings

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska wrongly denied some same-sex spouses benefits for years by claiming their unions were not recognized even after courts struck down gay marriage bans, court documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

The agency that determines eligibility for a yearly oil wealth check paid to nearly all Alaska residents denied a payout for same-sex spouses or dependents of military members stationed in other states for five years after a federal court invalidated Alaska’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014, the documents show. The practice also persisted after the Supreme Court legalized the unions nationwide in 2015.

In one email from July 2019, a same-sex spouse living out of state with his military husband was denied a check because “unfortunately the state of Alaska doesn’t recognize same sex marriage yet,” employee Marissa Requa wrote to a colleague, ending the sentence with a frowning face emoji.

The practice by the Permanent Fund Dividend Division continued until several people questioned or appealed being denied checks in 2019. Denali Smith, who was denied benefits, sued the state that November, seeking an order declaring that Alaska officials violated the federal court ruling and Smith’s constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.

Smith and the state settled the lawsuit Wednesday. Alaska admitted denying benefits to same-sex military spouses and dependents for five years in violation of a permanent injunction put in place by the 2014 U.S. District Court decision. The state also vowed to no longer use the outdated state law, stop denying military spouses and dependents oil checks going forward and update enforcement regulations.

There were no financial terms to the settlement. In fact, Smith had to pay $400 out of pocket to file the lawsuit to get her oil check, and her attorney worked pro bono.

In Alaska, the oil wealth check is seen as an entitlement that people use to buy things like new TVs or snowmobiles, fund college savings accounts or, in rural areas, pay for high heating and food costs. The payouts come from a fund seeded with oil money. Last year, nearly every resident received $992. The year before, the amount was $1,606.

About 800 pages of emails provided by the state for the lawsuit show a clear misunderstanding or outright disregard of the 2014 court precedent and reluctance to reach out to the attorney general’s office for guidance.

The emails, redacted of identifying information about oil check applicants, show that as late as 2019, division employees were claiming Alaska did not recognize same-sex marriages, often pointing to an outdated and unenforceable section of state law still on the books as justification.

“It seems like none of them, all the way up to the director, understood that this was a permanent injunction, meaning if you enforce the law after this date, you’re in violation of a court order and you’re violating people’s rights,” said Anchorage attorney Caitlin Shortell, one of the lawyers who successfully sued to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage and later filed the lawsuit on behalf of Smith.

The state Department of Law released a statement saying the unenforceable law will remain part of the state’s statutes until lawmakers remove it.

“As for the application of that law which led to the recently settled lawsuit, that policy has been corrected by the Department of Revenue,” the statement said. It added that it’s ensuring every eligible Alaskan receives an oil check as the governor directed after hearing about the issue in 2019.

The department did not respond to other questions from the AP, including how many spouses were improperly denied checks and how many of those were retroactively paid, whether the attorney general’s office advised the Permanent Fund Dividend Division on the changes stemming from the court decisions or if the division decided for itself what the law meant.

The emails show employees disregarded a 2017 order from a deputy revenue commissioner to stop denying checks to same-sex spouses, that efforts were made to keep incorrect language about the state not recognizing gay marriage in its literature and that its computer system was programmed to reference the unenforceable state law in form denial letters.

Smith, who accompanied her wife out of state, was denied a check in 2019. Shortell also represented another woman whose wife was stationed out of state, and the woman and the couple’s two children were denied benefits.

Division staff listed about 40 people who were denied. Four were marked for further review, but the emails don’t reference what came of those applications.

“Based on their ignorance of and disregard for the law throughout the disclosures, I do not trust their analysis was correct,” Shortell said, adding that the number of people denied benefits could be higher.

Of the settlement, Shortell said she was pleased the state would follow court orders that same-sex couples “are entitled to have their marriages recognized and to receive all of the benefits attendant on marriage,” including the oil checks.

“It is disturbing that it took five years and a federal lawsuit to force the state to follow the law and stop its discriminatory policy,” she added.

According to the emails, the first indication that the law was not being followed came on Feb. 26, 2015, when someone emailed employee Bradley Johnson about whether gay marriage was legal, and he sought clarification from Kimberly Lane, the division’s eligibility manager.

That same day, another employee, Jennifer Cason, told Lane she knew that same-sex marriage was legal in Alaska. “I just want to make sure that everyone knows what the law is here so it can be followed,” an email said.

On March 9, 2015, Lane asked appeals manager Robert Pearson for clarification. Pearson writes back, “1st thought – punt to AG,” followed by a smiley face.

“I don’t think the law has been officially struck down, as yet, but I could be wrong,” he continued. “So, 2nd thought, let’s wait until the Supreme Court decision and then we won’t have to take anything back that we’ve already done.”

Lynne Church, another employee, emailed Lane and Pearson on Aug. 8, 2016, about an applicant who would most likely be denied the following year because they would be accompanying their military spouse out of state. “Federal law and Alaska law are not aligned at this time,” Church wrongly stated.

On Jan. 26, 2017, Pearson emailed Sara Race, then the division’s director, and Anne Weske, then the division’s operations manager, summarizing the appeal by a woman who was denied a check when her wife was stationed out of state. The 2016 denial, Pearson wrote, “is based solely on her not qualifying as a military spouse. If she were male she would be eligible.”

The most definitive directive about approving such claims for same-sex spouses and dependents was given March 9, 2017, by Jerry Burnett, then the deputy revenue commissioner. He left little doubt in an email to Race and Weske, saying the U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated all opposing laws at the state or local level. Since the ruling, the division “has not been able to use the definition of marriage found in the Alaska Statutes or Constitution,” he wrote.

Any oil checks denied for that reason must be paid immediately, and staff need to use a definition of marriage that doesn’t conflict with the legal decisions, he wrote.

Race responded that the denial had been overturned and the person paid. “Also, 110% understood that future eligibility decisions would need to follow suit.”

Two years later, emails show same-sex couples were still being denied. In April 2019, emails show a woman who was denied a dividend was given a supervisor’s contact information to appeal.

After another applicant who had been denied complained to their lawmaker, the issue was escalated to Weske, who by then was the division’s director and who had received Burnett’s 2017 directive to recognize same-sex marriages.

“I seem to recall possible guidance from the prior administration in stating that we COULD allow them,” Weske wrote Sept. 23, 2019, noting that she’d check, but “if they were denied there is law stating that we don’t recognize same sex marriage.”

By Oct. 7, 2019, over a month before Smith’s lawsuit was filed, the policy had changed. Lane emailed staff to treat same-sex marriages the same as opposite-sex couples.

In that email, Lane said Alaska’s definition of marriage “has been struck down as unconstitutional by U.S. District Court and U.S. Supreme Court in two separate cases,” without mentioning those cases had been decided several years earlier.

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Here’s which animals Americans think they can beat in a fight

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Here's which animals Americans think they can beat in a fight

They say you should never poke a bear, but an overly confident 6% of Americans would.

A new online survey by YouGov — which appears to serve no higher purpose than to entertain — has revealed that, despite our reputation for arrogance, Americans are surprisingly realistic when it comes to fantasy match-ups pitting humans against beasts.

The ridiculous statistic, taken from a poll of 1,224 US adults aged 18 and over, asked participants to answer the query “Which animal do you think would win in a fight?” — humans included. The survey asked each volunteer to select one of two animals in a hypothetical head-to-head and answer seven rounds of pairings.

It should come as no surprise that the mighty elephant and fierce rhinoceros won out against more than 30 other predators and prey 74% of the time, securing their title as true rulers of the wild — at least, from humans’ perspective.

Grizzly bears got third billing (73%), then tigers (70%) and, in fifth place, the hippopotamus (69%) — who beat out some of the most agile hunters in all the animal kingdom, including the lion (68%) and a number of other big cats. It’s an astute assessment as the hippo, clocking in at about three tons, is widely considered to be one of the world’s deadliest animals, and kills some 500 people each year in Africa alone.

What followed is a pretty typical cast of ferocious characters, like the crocodile (67%) or the alligator (65%); the gorilla and the polar bear (each 64%). Notably raging reptiles — the anaconda, King Cobra and the Komodo dragon — all had strong showings. Even a few ruminants — the buffalo, bull and moose — were highly regarded.

Geese were considered the least of all formidable animals, winning just 14% of the time. Humans came next with 17%. Even a honey badger (37%) got more backing than us.

Survey data was also reorganized to reflect how humans ranked themselves against all other animals. Turns out we showed a healthy fear for some of the most savage beasts in more than 90% of match-ups, including against crocs, gorillas, elephants and lions.

Nearly half of us think we could take down a mid-sized dog, while just 23% would clash with a large canine. (In reality, dogs are more blight than bite: Rabies caused by feral dog bites kill tens of thousands globally per year, according to the World Health Organization, whereas, last year in the US, just 36 people died from injuries caused by dogs.) And put us in front of a rat, house cat or common landfowl and folks will put their money on our species about two-thirds of the time.

However, there’s one animal the survey didn’t name that deserves a nod: the mosquito. They may seem easy to squash, but the humble insect is responsible for more human deaths — hundreds of thousands — than any other animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Probably because, well, who could see them coming?

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Dad throws baby fit at pink gender reveal party

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Dad throws baby fit at pink gender reveal party

A father-to-be proved himself the biggest baby at his future child’s gender reveal. 

A viral TikTok video from this spring has captured the moment a dad learned that his unborn kid will be a girl — a fact he seems not very happy about.

While the rest of the crowd present erupts in cheers as a pregnant woman pops a balloon covered in question marks — that proves to be filled with smaller pink balloons, revealing that the woman will be having a daughter — the father has quite a different reaction. “Son of a bitch,” he appears to scream, throwing down the balloon’s strings in frustration and turning away from the party guests, all smiling but him.

The video, which was posted on April 25, has racked up over 566,000 views on the platform. 

The reaction is certainly not the best, but other recent gender reveals have gone up in far bigger flames.

Earlier in April, a particularly rambunctious gender reveal in New Hampshire shook homes in neighboring towns, was felt across state lines and prompted earthquake concerns, because it caused such a huge blast. It turns out, revelers had detonated 80 pounds of Tannerite to celebrate the fact that the baby was a boy. 

“We heard this God-awful blast,” neighbor Sara Taglieri told NBC 10 Boston. “It knocked pictures off our walls . . . I’m all up for silliness and whatnot, but that was extreme.”

Other notably intense gender reveal incidents have involved an Australian driver using color-infused rubber tires for (explosive) burnouts, a Tennessee couple using handheld colored smoke cannons and a gender reveal in Iowa that launched lethal shrapnel.

The woman behind the fad has begged people to be safer.

“For the love of God, stop burning things down to tell everyone about your kid’s penis. No one cares but you,” the parenting blogger credited with inventing the baby-reveal trend wrote last year. “

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Diver spots fish wearing a gold wedding ring in Australia

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Diver spots fish wearing a gold wedding ring in Australia

One man’s treasure is a fish’s trash.

A common mullet fish was spotted in the southern Pacific Ocean looking like a thousand bucks — by reasonable estimates.

Earlier this week, travel writer and avid snorkeler Susan Prior, who lives on Australia’s Norfolk Island, shared images of a silvery mullet fish, no more than a few inches long, with a gold wedding band wrapped around its head.

Prior is used to seeing these tiny fish sporting similar collars, usually made of plastic, which likely come from discarded “plastic juice and milk bottles,” she said, which so often end up in the ocean.

“Sometimes these rings escape into the wild, and this is the sad consequence,” Prior said in a May 11 blog post on her website.

But one mullet recently caught her eye for its particularly flashy new accessory.

“This one looked a shiny metallic gold, with a lot less algal growth compared to the plastic ones,” she wrote, referring to past mullets she’s seen with a similar look.

Although it’s certainly not uncommon for swimmers to lose their rings in the water, Prior also remembered that someone from Norfolk Island had in fact lost their gold band recently.

“I recalled that someone had posted on our local community social media pages about a large man’s wedding ring that had gone missing in the bay earlier this year, so I decided to see if I could find the possible owner,” she explained. “It didn’t take long for my suspicion to be confirmed; we now have a poor mullet weighed down with someone’s (expensive) gold wedding ring.”

However, she was unable to return the ring since she couldn’t catch up to the fish. According to Prior, who takes daily swims in the ocean, mullets are uniquely susceptible to picking up rings.

“Mullet snuffle through the sand looking for food, making it so easy for a ring or hair tie to flip over their noses and get stuck,” she wrote.

The amateur underwater photographer also pointed out that, valuable or not, these fish are being hampered by the added weight and algal growth, and at risk of being “slowly strangled,” she wrote. “The mullet has a life to live and it’s only fair he gets to live it.”

She also reminded her readers that, if we can’t keep trash from settling on the seabed, we can at the very least take steps to prevent harm to marine life.

“It is such a quick job to [pry] the collar off the bottle and snip it before putting it in your waste,” she wrote.

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