Saturday, December 25, 2010

ACLU Files Suit Seeking Survivor's Benefits for Same-Sex Partner of Deceased State Trooper

When you're getting ready for bed on this Christmas night, won't you spare a thought for Kelly Glossip?

Glossip (L), Engelhard and son in happier times.

Last Christmas morning Glossip's partner, Missouri Highway Patrol trooper Dennis Engelhard, said goodbye to his family and went to work as usual. Later that morning, while assisting a motorist who was was involved in an accident in the winter snow on Interstate 44, Engelhard was struck by an SUV. He died before Glossip could reach his side in the hospital.

Following his death, the governor ordered all U.S. and Missouri flags to be flown at half-staff. Earlier this week, the state even renamed the stretch of the highway where he was killed after him in his honor. But because Missouri does not recognize the legal validity of same-sex relationships, Glossip has been denied the survivor benefits that he would have received had they been able to marry.

"There were days after Dennis’ death that were some of the loneliest I have ever known. Neither I nor my son were mentioned in Dennis’ obituary, which just said that Dennis was 49, single, and survived by his parents, brother and sister-in-law and nephews and niece. When the governor called for the flags to be lowered to half-mast across the state, he asked the people of Missouri to pray for Dennis’ family: his parents and brother, but not me. Those moments made me feel that the family we had made for 15 years – me, Dennis and my son – was hidden, or purposefully ignored," Glossip says.

There is no dispute as to the nature of their relationship. Engelhard had been open about the relationship with his fellow troopers. "There were no problems with Dennis' sexual orientation within the Highway Patrol -- at least not in Troop C," Glossip says. "Dennis and I loved each other and lived in a committed relationship for 15 years. We depended on each other emotionally and financially in our life together like any other committed couple. We exchanged rings and would have married in Missouri if the state didn't exclude us from marriage."

"Life since Dennis has been gone has been a struggle. Not only do I have to cope with losing my beloved partner, and my son has to struggle with losing his stepfather, but since Dennis was the primary breadwinner in our family I have also struggled financially." If they had been legally married, Glossip would've been entitled to a state pension of 50% Engelhardt's salary. Represented by the ACLU, Glossip has filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Patrol Employees' Retirement System. "I'm just seeking the same financial protections the state provides to heterosexual couples. It is hard enough coping with the grief of losing Dennis. It is even more painful to have the state treat Dennis and me as though we were total strangers."

He is not challenging the definition of marriage under Missouri law. Instead, he is challenging the benefits policy as a violation of his rights under the Missouri Constitution. "All I am asking is for the same dignity for my family as is shown to any other Highway Patrol family in their time of need. Dennis gave his life protecting the people of Missouri, and yet the state treats his family as legal strangers. This is a disservice to his memory and a disservice to the promise of fair treatment under the law as promised by our state’s Constitution."

"Dennis and Kelly were a family in every sense of the word," said John Knight, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. "They owned a home together, shared cars and bank accounts, and Dennis even helped Kelly care for his child from a former marriage. They vowed to take care of each other in good times and in bad. As a matter of basic fairness, Kelly should be entitled to the same security as other bereaved partners of troopers killed in the line of duty."

"Kelly is merely seeking the same treatment he would have received if his partner had been a woman, rather than a man," said Anthony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "Kelly may not have been able to marry the person of his choice under Missouri state law, but he is still entitled to equal protection and the fundamental right to the family relationship he formed with Dennis Engelhard. He is seeking the same dignity and security for his family that is granted to other state troopers' families."

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