Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Employee Retirement System of Texas

Moving on to the benefits issue

And as we move on to other fights, the terrain changes.

RedEquality

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened the door for state agencies to withhold benefits from same-sex couples Friday, hours after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

In a letter released Friday afternoon, Abbott ordered heads of state agencies to prioritize religious freedom, writing that no adverse action should be taken against a state official “on account of the person’s act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief.”

“This order applies to any agency decision, including but not limited to granting or denying benefits, managing agency employees, entering or enforcing agency contracts, licensing and permitting decisions, or enforcing state laws and regulations,” Abbott wrote.

In anticipation of this response, a lawsuit has already been filed for force the state to recognize the same-sex unions of its employees and grant them the same benefits. I have no idea what legal justification Abbott thinks he has for this, but we already knew he was a crappy lawyer.

The Trib makes it clear that this is little more than saber-rattling on Abbott’s part.

Public employers including Texas agencies, universities and schools may now be required to extend benefits to spouses of married gay employees in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday that marriages between same-sex couples are constitutional.

But when those benefits will be extended is unclear as state officials examine the high court’s ruling and consider new policies.

“At this point, all I can say is we’re aware of the ruling and we’re examining it,” said Catherine Terrell, director of governmental affairs for the state Employee Retirement System, which oversees retirement and health benefits for state employees and those of most public universities and community colleges.

A spokeswoman for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas, which serves public education employees, echoed that sentiment, saying it was also “analyzing” the ruling’s impact on the programs it administers.

The ruling is likely to have little impact on state employees’ retirement benefits, because employees can already assign any person as a beneficiary, Terrell said. But “the major benefit issue” could be with employees’ health insurance plans.

[…]

Legal experts agreed that when it comes to extending benefits for same-sex couples, the state is now bound by the Supreme Court ruling to recognize all marriages.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and Texas Constitution expert at the University of Houston, said the state has no legal basis to exclude same-sex couples from the benefits it offers married couples.

“If you’re legally married by the law, no agency or government can restrict you,” Rottinghaus said. “Exactly how this is applied in Texas is going to be a bit shaky.”

But he added that extending benefits to same-sex couples is inevitable. “It’s not a question of when, but how,” Rottinghaus said.

That’s true of county clerks, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a straight line to get there. There’s already been a lawsuit filed to push the issue, in anticipation of this reaction from Abbott. It would be nice to think that we could avoid doing this the hard way, but of course we won’t. We will get where we need to be, We’re just gonna be mulish about it.

Lawsuit for same sex benefits for state employees filed

It’s all about being proactive.

RedEquality

Sensing that state officials will be reluctant to comply with a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, an LGBT civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking to force Texas to provide equal benefits to the same-sex spouses of public employees.

Lambda Legal filed the suit on behalf of Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth against the board and executive director of the Employee Retirement System of Texas, in U.S. district court in Austin.

Leliaert and Woolworth, who live in Denton County and have been together 14 years, were married in California in 2008. Leliaert serves as vice president for university relations and planning at the University of North Texas.

After Woolworth retired, Leliaert sought to enroll her in spousal insurance benefits at UNT in 2014, but was denied by ERS, which told her that “spouse and participant cannot have the same gender.” The lawsuit alleges Texas’ same-sex marriage bans violate the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. But Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton Jr. indicated that with the high court expected to decide that issue later this month, the suit is designed to serve as an enforcement action.

“Many officials across the state, in various capacities, have signaled they will be in no hurry to comply with the [Supreme Court] decision,” Upton said, adding that some will undoubtedly look to Attorney General Ken Paxton for guidance. “A pending lawsuit against the board of trustees and the executive director of the ERS will give us the ability to get relief for all the public employees and their dependents immediately, instead of waiting for the AG.”

Upton said in addition to state employees, the lawsuit could bring equal benefits to public school teachers, since the Teacher Retirement System of Texas operates under the same laws.

“We asked, if we could bring one enforcement action that would have the greatest effect, what would it look like?” Upton said. “Texas is a large state. Denying employment benefits to public employees is the biggest bang for the buck we could think of in one lawsuit.”

Click the link to see a copy of the lawsuit. Waiting for Paxton to take any action is clearly a loser’s game, as Lone Star Q documents.

In a press release marking the signing of the so-called “Pastor Protection Act,” Paxton said the bill—which merely reaffirms existing protections under state and federal law—is “not enough.”

“We now have much more work to do to ensure that all Texans can practice their faith and, among other things, recognize traditional marriage without being punished, harassed or discriminated against for their beliefs,” Paxton wrote. “What about the wedding photographer, the event planner, the caterer, the bed and breakfast owner, cake baker or any other Texas small business owner who is threatened or sued for carrying out their work according to their faith? What about the religiously-affiliated adoption agency that believes it should only place a child in a home with traditional marriage? What about the private school that teaches traditional marriage but is told it is an ‘issue’? Will that school lose its 501c3 tax-exempt status, as was suggested by the U.S. Solicitor General while arguing against traditional marriage in the Supreme Court?”

I’m not surprised by any of this. I suspect more than one lawsuit – probably a lot more than one – will be needed, but this is as good a place as any to start.