Mayor Parker announces same sex spousal benefits for city employees

Mayor Parker had been talking recently about a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance for Houston and possibly revisiting the 2001 charter amendment that forbids the city from offering domestic partner benefits. I knew something would be coming, but I didn’t expect this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The city of Houston will offer health and life insurance benefits to all spouses of legally married employees, including same-sex couples, despite a voter-approved 2001 charter amendment that had banned the practice, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.

Parker’s action relied on a legal opinion from City Attorney David Feldman that cited the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act this year, federal agencies’ subsequent decisions to recognize legal same-sex marriages and other relevant case law.

“Based on the right to equal protection under the law, it is unconstitutional for the city to continue to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of our employees who are legally married,” Parker said. “This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do.”

The 2001 charter amendment states, in part, “Except as required by State or Federal law, the City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.”

Parker said the language is plan in referring to legal marriages. Same-sex marriages conducted in any jurisdiction where the act is legal, including foreign countries, 17 states and the District of Columbia, will be recognized, she said.

Here’s the official press release, with a bit more information.

The city of Houston is following actions already taken by several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, which announced in August that all legally married same-sex couples will be recognized as married for federal tax purposes, even if those couples reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.”

As a result of this policy change, same-sex spouses of city employees will now be eligible for the same health care and life insurance benefits previously offered only to heterosexual married couples. It is unclear at this time as to how many employees will take advantage of the change because there is no way to know how many have legally recognized same-sex marriages. The new policy will not extend to domestic partners; it applies only to legally married couples.

I’m delighted to see this happen, and very happy for my friends Noel Freeman and Brad Pritchett, who are the first beneficiaries under this directive. I think we all know that this is hardly the end of it, however. For one thing, Attorney General and candidate for Governor Greg Abbott is sure to weigh in, either on his own accord or because he’s formally asked for an opinion by the likes of Sen. Dan Patrick, who requested the opinion about domestic partnership benefits earlier this year. Abbott has intervened in the gay divorce lawsuit with the contention that same sex marriage simply doesn’t exist in Texas. Doesn’t matter what you did in Massachusetts or wherever, your gay marriage disappears in a puff of constitutional smoke once you cross back over the state line. I’m sure Abbott et all would argue that since the state of Texas does not recognize Noel and Brad’s marriage, the city of Houston is not allowed to recognize it, either. If the state is willing to screw over active duty military members, it’s willing to screw over municipal employees.

I also fully expect blowback from the Dave Wilson crowd. The man himself is ready to oblige.

“My understanding of the Texas state law is that you cannot be legally married unless you’re the opposite sex in the state of Texas, and that will be the overriding thing,” Wilson said. “They’re just trying to monkey with the words. I will absolutely take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”

Wilson is the main reason we have that charter amendment in the first place. If there’s any justice, he’ll spend himself into the poorhouse pursuing this and lose anyway. Politically speaking, one way or another, we still need to have a vote to repeal that amendment. I’m sure this will be on Mayor Parker’s agenda for her third term.

But all those are concerns for another day. For now, let’s celebrate this advance for equality in Houston. Kudos to Mayor Parker for making it happen. Texpatriate, Texas Leftist, and the Observer have more.

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