By taking a narrow view of the law, the Missouri Supreme Court may have made the correct legal decision — and dodged political controversy — in denying survivor benefits to Kelly Glossip, the same-sex partner of a fallen Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper.
But a powerful dissent by Judge Richard B. Teitelman points out the real problem: Missouri’s constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage. His dissent should serve as a rallying cry to those who want the ban lifted.
In a 5-2 decision Tuesday, the Supreme Court found Glossip ineligible for pension benefits that normally go to the spouse of a trooper killed in the line of duty. The decision was based on the fact that Glossip and the trooper, Cpl. Dennis Engelhard, were not married.
The men were partners for almost 15 years and were raising a son together when Engelhard, 49, was killed. He was hit by a car on Christmas Day 2009 while helping a motorist on Interstate 44 in Eureka. They owned a house in Franklin County, had joint bank accounts and regularly attended church together.
With Engelhard’s death, Glossip and his son were bereft not only of a loved one, but also of their family’s breadwinner. Glossip was denied pension benefits and sued the state on the grounds of denial of equal protection. He contended that he was entitled to the benefits as a surviving spouse because his relationship with Engelhard was a marriage the couple would have formalized if Missouri law had allowed.
The court’s ruling stressed repeatedly that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was not relevant to the case because Glossip’s lawsuit did not specifically challenge that. The opinion said the issue of sexual orientation was separate from marital status and that the law in question only dealt with marital status.
On that basis, lawyers for the state had argued, any unmarried partner, regardless of sex, of a trooper who dies in the line of duty also would be denied survivor benefits. The argument overlooks the point that an opposite-sex couple could have been legally married in Missouri.
The court majority refused to wade into that thicket on this case, saying the same-sex marriage ban was "an issue for another day."
Judge Teitelman strongly disagreed, characterizing the opinion as part of "the continued state-sanctioned marginalization of our fellow citizens." He was joined in his dissent by Judge George Draper.
In Judge Teitelman’s dissent, he wrote: "For decades, indeed centuries, gay men and lesbians have been subjected to persistent, unyielding discrimination, both socially and legally. This shameful history continues to this day."
John Knight, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which was part of Glossip’s legal team — was disappointed in the court’s ruling.
"Limiting benefits to married couples while denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry is discrimination plain and simple," Knight said in a statement.
He added that he was "hopeful this case will help the people of Missouri understand the crucial need for legislative efforts to overcome discrimination against lesbians and gays and same-sex couples."
Along with the obvious social consequences, denying equal protection to same-sex couples could have economic repercussions and could hurt businesses unable to offer potential employees benefits equal to what they may be entitled to in other states.
It is beyond the right time for Missouri to recognize and allow same-sex couples to marry and enjoy the benefits opposite-sex couples are routinely granted. It’s the law in 14 states now and, inevitably, will be law in all 50. It will be too late for Glossip, but it is never too late to stop discrimination. Or too early, either.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.