Texas

Judge won’t stop Texas county from providing benefits for same-sex partners

DAVID LEE | Courthouse News Service

EL PASO, Texas — A Texas state judge refused to stop El Paso County from providing health benefits for its employees’ same-sex partners, disagreeing with arguments such benefits violate the Texas Constitution.

Judge Patrick Garcia of the 384th District Court refused to issue a temporary injunction against an ordinance allowing the payments on Tuesday, the El Paso Times reported.

The suit was filed by community activist Carl Starr against county judge Veronica Escobar on May 1; in it he argued the county’s policy to extent benefits to unmarried partners is in violation of the constitution. Voters in Texas voted to amend the constitution in 2005 that banned same-sex marriages.

“I still have a case,” Starr told the Times after the ruling. “My suit continues on the merits for a permanent injunction.”

Starr argued in court that as a taxpayer, he would suffer “imminent irreparable harm” if the county continued to spend money on the benefits.

Assistant county attorney Ruben Duarte disagreed, arguing the plaintiff had no evidence or testimony that demonstrated he was being affected by the county’s policy.

Starr filed the lawsuit after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in April that local governments cannot legally offer health benefits to gay or straight unmarried couples.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, asked Abbott for his opinion after several counties, cities and school districts in Texas have chosen to extend such benefits.

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Abbott said state law uses the term “domestic partnership” only to describe a type of business entity. The constitution provision “explicitly prohibits” local government from creating or recognizing a legal status that is identical or similar to marriage between a man and woman, according to his opinion.

“The domestic partnerships about which you inquire are entirely a creation of the relevant political subdivisions,” Abbott wrote. “By creating domestic partnerships and offering health benefits based on them, the political subdivisions have created and recognized something not established by Texas law.”

Abbott declined to give an opinion on several suits concerning “defense of marriage” laws from other states before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He says the court’s decision could “call into question the enforceability” of Texas’ gay marriage ban under the U.S. Constitution. Escobar told the Times she expects the suit to be dismissed after the commissioners court approves policy changes to address the issues raised in Abbott’s opinion.

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