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Abbott opines against domestic partnership benefits

This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

On the right side of history

The state Constitution prohibits government entities from recognizing domestic partnerships and offering insurance benefits to those couples, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in an opinion on Monday.

In the nonbinding opinion, Abbott determined that local jurisdictions that offer such benefits “have created and recognized something” — domestic partnerships — “not established by Texas law.”

“A court is likely to conclude that the domestic partnership legal status about which you inquire is ‘similar to marriage’ and therefore barred” by the state Constitution, he wrote.

The opinion was a response to a question asked by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who had raised concerns about the Pflugerville school district, as well as the cities of El Paso, Austin and Fort Worth, extending such benefits to domestic partners.

“The voters of the state of Texas decided overwhelmingly that marriage is between one man and one woman in 2005,” Patrick said in a statement responding to Abbott’s opinion. “This opinion clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans.”

You can read the opinion here. I called this back in November when Patrick asked for the opinion, not that this is anything to be proud of. A few thoughts:

– Remember back in 2005 when those of us who opposed that awful anti-gay marriage amendment pointed out that it would do a lot more than merely make gay marriage extra super illegal (since it was already illegal in Texas)? This is the sort of thing we were talking about. Legislative Democrats that still haven’t gotten on board the marriage equality bus, this is especially on you.

– Note that since the language of Abbott’s opinion is all about how the amendment banned anything “similar to marriage” and how that encompasses the term “domestic partner”, this isn’t strictly about LGBT folks. If you’re shacking up with your opposite sex partner but have chosen not to tie the knot, you’re SOL if you work for a non-federal government entity in Texas.

– Of course, if you are one half of a straight unmarried couple, you can always tie the knot to get your hands on health insurance. Gay people can get married now, too, but the state of Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this would be the seed of that law’s downfall in the event that SCOTUS throws out DOMA. If we’re lucky, this will turn out to be a massive and petty waste of time.

– If you read the opinion, Abbott tries to play a little jiujitsu by claiming that the intent of the law was not to bar cities from offering same sex partners insurance benefits, just from recognizing the status of a marriage-like thing such as a domestic partnership:

Representative Chisum’s statement simply explains that article I, section 32 does not, in his view, address whether a political subdivision may provide health benefits to the unmarried partner of an employee. The constitutional provision does, however, explicitly prohibit a political subdivision from creating or recognizing a legal status identical or similar to marriage. The political subdivisions you ask about have not simply provided health benefits to the partners of their employees. Instead, they have elected to create a domestic partnership status that is similar to marriage. Further, they have recognized that status by making it the sole basis on which health benefits may be conferred on the domestic partners of employees.

For extra credit, please detail a scenario in which an insurance company would offer a benefit for the unmarried partner of an employee that didn’t require some kind of legal affirmation of a relationship between the applicant and the employee that would also be constitutionally acceptable to Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and other deep thinkers such as Drew Springer.

– This absolutely, positively has to be a campaign issue in 2014. I can’t emphasize this enough. People may remain largely opposed to gay marriage in Texas, but by a two to one margin they approve of either gay marriage or civil unions. I’m willing to bet a decent majority will not like this opinion. More to the point, this is an issue that Democrats can rally around, since it illustrates in unmistakeable terms a key difference between the two parties. Even better, this can be hung around Abbott’s neck. Sure, he’s only taking his best guess at how a court would decide the issue, but it’s also unambiguously the same as his own position. Let him explain why it’s technically inaccurate to say that Greg Abbott outlawed domestic partnership benefits in Texas. This goes for Drew Springer and all of his coauthors, too. This is a big deal. We need to treat it like one.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but let’s keep our eyes open for the reactions to this. Trail Blazers, Hair Balls, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: Equality Texas goes glass-half-full on the opinion:

It means cities, counties, and school districts seeking to remain competitive with private business can offer employee benefit programs that provide health and other benefits to unmarried household members if the eligibility criteria are properly structured.

However, eligibility should not use the term “domestic partner”, or be based upon proving the existence of a “domestic partnership”, or use criteria usually associated with marriage (like current marital status, or related by a certain degree of consanguinity).

It means political subdivisions can offer employee benefit programs to unmarried household members if their eligibility criteria don’t look like marriage, or create something that resembles marriage.

I appreciate their optimism, and I hope they’re right. But I still think that the challenge of fashioning such a thing will be too daunting. I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: The cities of Austin and San Antonio are not quite ready to accept Abbott’s opinion.

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3 Comments

  1. Buhallin says:

    I always find myself a little confused by conservatives when I read things like this. If Washington tries to impose something on Texas that the state might now want, it’s all about “federalism” and “local control” and “freedom to be ourselves”. But when someplace like Austin decides to exert a little local control, it’s right back to the authoritarian hammer coming down.

    So I guess “local control” is fine, as long as it’s not too local. Or, more likely, the locals happen to want what the conservatives in power want…

  2. […] here for the background. As noted, Abbott’s opinion is not legally binding, it’s his opinion […]

  3. […] issued his opinion back in April. He stated in his opinion that Texas’ double secret illegal anti-gay marriage […]

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