The Missouri Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday in a case that began with the tragic line-of-duty death of a Missouri state trooper.
According to the state, Dennis Englehard left behind no survivors. But his partner of 15 years disagreed - and sued to access the benefits he felt he was due. A district judge in Cole County rejected that request.
Kelly Glossip never thought he would be a gay rights activist.
"We weren't out there holding the gay flag and marching in the parade every day or something like that, but we never hid our relationship either," he says of himself and Dennis Englehard, his partner of 15 years.
Englehard, a state trooper, was assisting a stranded motorist on Christmas Day 2009 when he was struck and killed by a driver who lost control on icy roads.
Glossip was the sole beneficiary of Englehard's deferred compensation plan, and would also receive part of a life insurance policy. But the state rejected Glossip's request for survivor benefits. By law, those are limited to a surviving spouse - and Glossip and Englehard couldn't marry.
So Glossip sued.
"I can't stand back and be quiet," he says. "That would be a disgrace to our relationship, a disgrace to Dennis. He always told me, 'don't be a coward.'"
The Legal Journey
- Put together the puzzle of the case:
- Read the Supreme Court briefs here.
But the case is not mean to be a frontal assault on Missouri's marriage amendment, says Tony Rothert, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.
"The state, as is their right currently, has limited marriage to different-sex couples," Rothert says. "Whatever those reasons are, they don't have any bearing on the need of those families, and the right of those families who are working for the state, to have the access to the same protections that are given to other families."
Attorney general Chris Koster's office would not comment on pending litigation. But the arguments made in the state's legal briefs sounded very familiar to Anthony Johnstone, a law professor at the University of Montana.
"The reason that the person suing for the benefits is denied the benefits is not because of their sexual orientation, or their relationship with the employee, but because they are not married," said Johnstone, who as Montana state solicitor defended a similar arrangement at the district and appeals court levels.
Ultimately, Johnstone says, the Missouri and Montana cases, as well as two at the U.S. Supreme Court, center around one main question - how suspicious should courts be of laws that could arguably discriminate against gays and lesbians?
"I think it's fair to say that over time, both state and federal courts have become more suspicious of classifications that could be viewed as discriminatory against gays and lesbians," he said.
Despite that changing landscape, and past successes, the ACLU's Tony Rothert isn't expecting a broad ruling in Missouri.
"The principles the court lays down may have some application beyond this case and in future cases, but the ruling will be narrow and apply only to the specific factual situation," he says. In this case, the ACLU is asking that Glossip receive Englehard's survivor benefits.
Glossip could use the money. A series of injuries and illnesses has left him subsisting on social security disability benefits. He's lost the house he shared with Englehard in Franklin County.
But Glossip says that's not what this case is about.
"It's about winning to get rights and benefits for same-sex couples so they don't have to go through the horrible discrimination that I went through, and that probably past couples went through that were probably in the closet," he says.
Such a victory might make all he's lost worth it.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann