Missouri Supreme Court Denies Survivor Benefits to Same-Sex Partner of Deceased Highway Patrol Officer

gaypride_flagThe Missouri Supreme Court, sitting en banc, issued a decision yesterday that, on its face, seems like a defeat for proponents of same-sex marriage in that state. In Glossip v. Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System, the state’s highest court upheld a state statute that requires a person be married to a highway patrol employee in order to receive benefits after the employee’s death. Although the Missouri constitution prohibits recognition of same-sex marriages, the plaintiff did not challenge that provision (so the court did not rule on that).

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. Dennis Engelhard and Kelly Glossip, both men, were in a domestic partnership and “held [themselves] out to [their] families and [their] community as a couple in a committed, marital relationship.” Engelhard was a state highway patrolman and was killed in the line of duty. Glossip applied for survivor benefits, and his application was denied because the relevant state law allows benefits only for a surviving “spouse.” After his application was rejected, Glossip filed this lawsuit challenging the state statute restricting survivor benefits based on marital status, as well as the statute defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Importantly, Glossip did not challenge the state’s constitutional provision prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages.

The supreme court ruled against Glossip on both challenges. The court held that it is permissible for the state to restrict a benefit based on marital status. Laws that classify people on the basis of their marital status, the court opined, must be shown to be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The court found that the marital status requirement for survival benefits met that low threshold.

As to Glossip’s challenge to the statute defining marriage as between a man and a woman, the court held that he did not have standing to challenge that law. Under Missouri law, judicial standing for an equal protection—or the eligibility of a plaintiff to challenge a law as violating the state equal protection requirement—requires the plaintiff to: “(1) identify a statutory classification that distinguishes between similarly-situated persons in the exercise of of a right or the receipt of a benefit; (2) show that the plaintiff is a member of the disadvantaged class; and (3) demonstrate that, but for the challenged classification, the plaintiff would be eligible for the right or benefit.” The court found that because Glossip and Engelhard were not married in any jurisdiction, nor had they ever attempted to get married, Glossip lacked standing to challenge the state law defining marriage.

I believe the court’s standing analysis denies justice, as it neglects to consider the effect of the laws taken together, which is to preclude same-sex spouses of highway patrol employees from ever receiving survivor benefits. The piecemeal analysis of the individual statutes sidesteps the heart of the issue: whether the state statutory scheme discriminates against same-sex survivors of highway patrol employees. Because of this myopia, a widow cannot receive the benefits to which he should be entitled.

The silver lining of the decision is that the court’s language is extremely narrow and all but outlines the steps necessary to challenge the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The tone of the opinion is almost remorseful that the plaintiff did not argue his case differently or present different facts. Hopefully another brave plaintiff will step forward to challenge that law and bring equality to Minnesota.