Today is a big day for Houston’s LGBT community… an emotional day as well. Directly from the Mayor’s Office, here’s the press release…
Mayor Annise Parker today announced that the city will begin offering benefits to all legally married spouses of city employees. This will apply to same-sex couples who have been married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. The mayor’s decision is based on a city legal department interpretation of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and other relevant case law from the around the country.
A 2001 voter-approved City Charter amendment has previously been relied upon as the basis for prohibiting the granting of same-sex benefits. However, the amendment specifically permits benefits to be provided to “legal spouses” of employees. After a careful review of recent case law, the city legal department believes continued application of the charter amendment so as to deny same-sex spousal benefits would be unlawful because it treats employees differently on the basis of sexual orientation.
“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,” said Mayor Parker. “This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do.”
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.
The move notes some significant progress for Texas’ largest city, and provides a great example of something other municipalities in Conservative states can do to aid legally married same-sex couples. Under the current charter amendment passed in 2001, Houston is still unable to offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried same-sex couples. Houston
This is a proud moment for the Parker administration… something expected, but maybe not so soon after her reelection. I take it as a signal that she is serious on the advancement of equality for Houston. The issue’s bottom line is all about fairness. At yesterday’s Press Conference, Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle asked an important question regarding the state-level Defense of Marrige Act…
Morris: “What would you say to a critic who might view this as your administration choosing not to enforce provisions [of state law]?”
Parker: “I’ll read you the exact language in the City Charter.
‘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, or dependent children…’ It’s very clear… employees, legal spouses and their dependent children. The plain language [of who can and cannot be covered] is in the charter.
Morris: “Except as required by state law.”
Parker: “State or federal law, and federal law trumps state law.”
As our state’s Conservative leaders continue to hope pray that LGBT equality will go away, Houston continues to make progress towards a more equal society for it’s citizens.
In the wake of this important step, another fact deserves to be discussed. He may not have expected yesterday’s announcement, but I can guarantee you that fellow blogger Charles Kuffner of Off the Kuff had something to do with it. Through interviews with 35 Houston municipal candidates, including 10 currently elected officials, Kuffner was consistent in putting the candidates on record for their stance about domestic partner benefits. Thanks to his tireless work, this and other equality issues were kept at the forefront of the 2013 elections.