Austin mayor: No changes on same-sex benefits

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:06 PM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 30 at 6:21 PM

AUSTIN -- When the Pflugerville ISD school board voted in December to become the first Texas school district to offer benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships, the decision sparked both criticism and praise.
 
"I believe that teachers who I work with down the hall from me should be able to get the same benefits that I get for my wife and my child,"  Pflugerville teacher August Plock told KVUE in December. 
 
"It is immoral," First Baptist Church Pastor Steve Washburn responded at the time. "We're normalizing immoral relationships." 
 
On Monday Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a six-page formal opinion declaring the practice violates the Texas Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and amendment to the Texas Constitution approved by voters in 2005. The opinion came at the request of state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston). 
 
"Three to one people in Texas voted that marriage was between a man and a woman," Patrick told KVUE Tuesday. "And it was clear to me when this school board in Pflugerville voted to give benefits to domestic partnerships, they were recognizing that as marriage, which was against the constitution. That's the reason I asked the question." 
 
"It's his opinion. We disagree with it," said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas. Burke points out the opinion isn't legally binding and argues benefits don't equal marriage. 
 
"They're not about same-sex marriage or union," Burke said. "They are domestic partner benefits. The DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman. That's not what these benefits are about at all. They're just about who gets health insurance."
 
The opinion also applies to Travis County and the City of Austin, both of which offer similar benefits. Austin ISD is considering offering benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships as well. In an interview with KVUE Tuesday, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell called the opinion "very serious legal advice," but said city employees receiving the benefits in question shouldn't worry.
 
"Obviously we have to give the attorney general's opinion great weight. He is the chief legal officer for the state of Texas," said Leffingwell. "Our lawyers are continuing to look at it, but I can tell that we have have no plans at this time to discontinue benefits."
 
Such a decision would require a vote by the city council, which approved benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships in 2008. Meanwhile Austin ISD and Pflugerville ISD officials say legal advisors are weighing the opinion, but no decisions have been made regarding any potential policy changes.
 
"Our lawyers tell me that they're perfectly within the law to continue to offer this benefit," said Burke. "We're awaiting two Supreme Court decisions in June, either one of which could invalidate the Texas Defense of Marriage Act entirely, in which case this would all be rendered moot."
 
Opponents warn this is just the beginning. Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz says HB 1568 filed by state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) would give the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency the authority to withdraw accreditation and funding from school districts that violate the Texas Constitution.
 
"We're going to take it a step further since they haven't gotten the message," said Saenz. "Clearly they don't have any respect for the Constitution, so the state's got to step in and make sure there's an enforcement and accountability measure so they know that you don't mess with the Texas Constitution."
 
"I hope this opinion now helps that bill get out of calendars and come to the Senate," said Patrick. "I hope now with this opinion any other school board thinking of this or any city council or any other government entity will step back and say, 'Wait a minute, we can't vote to do this.'"

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