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Topics In the News
Missouri Supreme Court Makes Mockery of Equal Protection
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/31/13
Last updated on: 10/31/13
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A shocking decision from the Missouri Supreme Court mocks the concept of equal protection in denying survivor benefits to the partner of a state trooper killed in the line of duty. The decision, released on October 29, 2013, said that since Corporal Dennis Engelhard, who died in 2009, was not married to Kelly Glossip, his partner of 15 years, Glossip is not entitled to survivor benefits from the state. In a classic example of circular reasoning, the majority in the 5-2 decision said that Glossip was not discriminated against on the basis of his sexual orientation, but was denied benefits simply because he and Engelhard were not married, as though the fact that same-sex marriage is banned in Missouri had nothing to do with sexual orientation or with the fact that Engelhard and Glossip were not married.

As reported on the Ozarks First website, Engelhard died on Christmas day in 2009 after he was struck and killed by a car that lost control on icy roads. Engelhard was assisting a stranded motorist at the time.

After Kelly Glossip, his partner of 15 years, was denied survivor benefits by the state, he filed suit. He argued that the law was discriminatory because Missouri state law also forbids same-sex marriage.

In a 5-2 opinion, written by Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell, the court ruled that "Glossip was denied survivor benefits because he and the patrolman were not married, not because of his sexual orientation. 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 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."

While the decision acknowledges that Missouri prohibits same-sex marriage and therefore Glossip and Engelhard could not marry, it evades the real issue by saying that "the benefits statutes that Glossip challenges do not prohibit same-sex marriage. That ban is in Missouri's constitution, and Glossip expressly does not challenge it. Accordingly, he cannot use that ban as support for his challenge to the benefits statutes, which discriminate on the basis of marital status."

In an astonishing act of judicial irresponsibility, the majority on the Court tailored its decision specifically to avoid ruling on the crucial questions at the heart of the suit and of justice.

"For these reasons," the decision concludes, "this case is decided on very narrow grounds. Glossip is not eligible for survivor benefits because he was not married to the patrolman. If Glossip and the deceased patrolman had been married in another state (or country), Glossip could have challenged the statute that prohibits recognizing same-sex marriages for purposes of Missouri benefits. But they were not. Glossip could have challenged Missouri's constitutional provision that precluded him and the patrolman from marrying here. But he did not. Therefore, these questions must go unanswered. The only decision the Court makes here has nothing to do with the rights of same-sex partners. Instead, the Court merely upholds the General Assembly's right to award and deny survivor benefits based on whether the claimant was married to the patrolman at the time of death."

The disingenousness of the majority opinion would be comical were the consequences of such an approach to justice not so tragic.

In contrast, the dissenting opinion, written by former Chief Justice Richard B. Teilman and joined by Judge George W. Draper, directly confronts the question of equal protection.

It begins, "For decades, indeed centuries, gay men and lesbians have been subjected to persistent, unyielding discrimination, both socially and legally. That shameful history continues to this day. The statutes at issue in this case, sections 104.140.3 and 104.012, RSMo Supp. 2001, bear witness to that history and help ensure that this unfortunate past remains a prologue to the continued state-sanctioned marginalization of our fellow citizens. The plain meaning and intended application of sections 104.140.3 and 104.012 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. This type of intentional, invidious and specifically targeted discrimination is fundamentally inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law."

"Against this backdrop, the principal opinion holds that section 104.140.3 does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation because it draws a distinction only on the basis of marital status. This holding overlooks the fact that section 104.140.3 employs a definition of 'spouse' that operates to the unique disadvantage of gay men and lesbians, even when, like Corporal Engelhard, they devote their lives to the defense of the same rule of law that relegates them to the status of second class citizens."

The ruling by the majority is both disappointing and shameful.

I hope it will be challenged in federal court.

The decision, including the dissent, may be found here.

The video below, from the ACLU, explains the case.

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