Fort Worth officials study AG ruling that same-sex benefits break the law

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Healthcare benefits for nearly three dozen local residents could be at risk after a ruling by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

City attorneys are busy reviewing the opinion Abbott released this week that local governments in Texas can’t offer medical benefits to same-sex partners of employees because it creates a legal status similar to marriage.

“I haven’t got a clue what impact this will have until we hear from the legal department,” Mayor Pro Tem W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman said Tuesday.

The city’s legal department hopes to privately brief council members as soon as next week on the ruling and whether it affects local policies more than 2 years old, city spokesman Bill Begley said.

Several years ago after the controversial bar check at the Rainbow Lounge — which resulted in one injury, several arrests and an outcry from the gay community — Fort Worth became one of the first Texas cities to extend health and other benefits to all domestic partners of city employees.

Other governments that offer similar benefits include Austin, El Paso and San Antonio, the Pflugerville school district and Travis and El Paso counties.

Abbott issued a six-page opinion this week stating that any government or school district that offers marriage benefits to same-sex partners is violating the Texas Constitution, since voters in 2005 approved an amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.

“I think it’s pathetic,” said Jon Nelson, president of Fairness Fort Worth, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said of the ruling. “It reminds me of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, where it upheld slavery.

“Years later, people looked back and said, ‘What were they thinking?’ Years from now, people will look back on Attorney General Abbott’s decision and say the same thing.”

Rainbow Lounge

In 2009, after the Rainbow Lounge check, when many patrons accused police of targeting the bar and using excessive force because it caters to gay people, city leaders formed a task force to develop better relations with gay and lesbian residents.

They appointed a Police Department liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, and provided more training for city employees.

They also approved providing access to health benefits to domestic partners of city employees starting Jan. 1, 2011. City officials agreed to pay a portion of the health insurance premiums for those domestic partners by Jan. 1, 2012, according to city records.

In 2010, more than 100 people from area churches went to City Hall and called on council members to overturn some of the city’s gay-friendly policies.

“I believe the media and the GLBT community has distorted the facts of what happened on the night of the Rainbow Lounge [bar check] to promote the homosexual agenda,” Richard Cough, a former candidate for county judge, said at the time.

As of this week, 13 domestic partners are enrolled in healthcare and dental insurance, nine are enrolled in healthcare only and nine are enrolled in dental only, Begley said. The city does not subsidize premiums for dental insurance.

Nelson, who worked with the city to craft a series of reforms, pointed out that Abbott’s opinion is merely that — a legal opinion of how he believes a court would rule on this issue.

Abbott’s point was that documents such as those allowing domestic partners to have health insurance create a “legal status” similar to marriage that the state constitution does not acknowledge.

Nelson said: “A marriage includes a ceremony of marriage, official documents of marriage, laws dealing with divorce, laws dealing with inheritance — those are all [part] of the legal status of marriage. Granting healthcare status is so far from that.

“He’s trying to hammer a square peg in a round hole,” Nelson said. “And I think he’s doing it because he believes his votes come from Christian conservatives.”

Different opinions

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, asked Abbott last year for a clarification.

He wanted to know whether cities and school districts allowing domestic partner benefits conflicted with the 2005 “Marriage Amendment.”

This week, Patrick said Abbott’s ruling “clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans.”

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said Abbott is “interfering with local control.”

“They’re great at giving lip service to local control, but if it’s useful to him to pick on somebody for his electoral base, he ignores it,” he said.

Fort Councilman Joel Burns, who is openly gay, said this week that he also is disappointed in Abbott.

“However, I am not surprised that once again he is more interested in dividing Texans for political gain than bringing them together to make Texas stronger and more prosperous,” Burns said. “He continues to pursue faulty legal strategies and disrespect local control and the expense of taxpayers.

“Here in Fort Worth, we value every citizen which makes every family stronger.”

Legislative action

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, was involved in the legal side of this issue as an attorney with the Liberty Counsel.

His group sued in a federal court in El Paso, challenging that city’s decision to offer benefits to domestic partners after voters there rejected offering those benefits.

“As the law stands, it’s pretty clear that Texas does not recognize any relationship outside of marriage between one man and one woman,” Krause said. “If you look at the law, it’s pretty clear.

“And so, until we change that, there’s not really much wiggle room from a constitutional standpoint to do that,” he said. “The way the Texas Constitution reads, I think you have to come to the same conclusion that Greg Abbott did.”

At least one bill in the Texas House, HB 1568, would revoke accreditation and withhold state funding from any school district that offers domestic partnership benefits. Co-authors include state Reps. Krause, Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

Other officials disagree with Abbott’s ruling and the pending legislation.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke out against Abbott’s ruling this week.

He has asked city officials in San Antonio, which extended same-sex partner benefits two years ago, to review effects of the ruling.

“I don’t think our policy is unconstitutional, but I believe the attorney general’s opinion is wrong for San Antonio and a step backwards for Texas,” he said.

Austin Bureau Chief Dave Montgomery contributed to this report.

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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