Houston to allow benefits for legally married same-sex couples

Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced that the city will begin offering benefits to all legally married spouses of city employees
December 27, 2013 11:54:03 AM PST
Houston Mayor Annise Parker 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 US Supreme Court decisions and other cases from the around the country.

"It feels wonderful to be able to actually go through this process and get him put on my benefits," city employee Noel Freeman said.

Freeman became the first city of Houston employee to apply for health insurance for his spouse, the man he married several years ago and didn't have insurance of his own.

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. The city legal department believes denying 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. The new policy will not extend to domestic partners; it applies only to legally married couples.

However, the Texas attorney general earlier this year issued an opinion that said public entities, including cities that offered same-sex benefits, are violating the state constitution.

Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman interprets otherwise.

"To the extent that the state DOMA would compel the city to do so would be unconstitutional itself," Feldman said.

Legal challenges are expected. County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill predicts several.

"Number one, the people in this state have created in our Texas constitution a provision that says marriage is between one man and one woman," Woodfill said.

For now, the policy has taken effect, and Freeman has his own policy to take home this evening.

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