BREAKING: Houston Mayor Annise Parker announces city will offer benefits to gay partners

Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday morning that the city will begin offering benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees if they are legally married in another state.

Here’s the full press release from Parker’s office:

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.

Houston will join other cities including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio in offering DP benefits in Texas. Parker’s announcement could set up a legal battle with Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who issued a non-binding opinion in April saying he believes domestic partner benefits offered by local government entities are illegal under Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Abbott, of course, is running for governor in 2014.

Parker, an out lesbian, was re-elected to her third and final term last month. The Houston Chronicle notes that Parker and her partner of 24 years, Kathy Hubbard, won’t be eligible for the benefits because they haven’t gotten married in a state where it’s legal.

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