ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday ruled it is unconstitutional to bar benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees, a victory for gay rights advocates in one of the first states to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Overturning a lower court ruling, the state high court said barring benefits for state and city employees’ same-sex partners violates the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“It’s a good day for Alaska families,” said Carrie Evans, state legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.

She said the decision sets the stage for Alaska to join 11 other states that already have laws, policies or union contracts providing employee benefits in all eligible same-sex unions.

Anchorage city attorney Fred Boness said officials would not appeal the court’s decision.

“We’re disappointed that we lost, and I think it means we’re going to have to provide those benefits in the future to qualifying same-sex couples,” Boness said.

A messages left at the Alaska attorney general’s office was not immediately returned.

Nine gay or lesbian government workers and their partners in 2002 joined the Alaska American Civil Liberties Union in appealing a lower court ruling in a 1999 lawsuit filed against the state and the Municipality of Anchorage after voters the previous year passed a constitutional amendment blocking state recognition of gay marriage.

In the 2001 Superior Court ruling overturned Friday, Judge Stephanie Joannides said the state and city did not have to extend benefits to same-sex couples, equating them with unmarried heterosexual couples who also are not eligible.

The high court said that comparison failed to acknowledge the fact that heterosexual couples can choose to get married, while homosexual couples cannot.

Michael Macleod-Ball, director of the Alaska ACLU, said the Alaska Supreme Court ruling could have an effect on other states.

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