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The Brief: Nov. 21, 2013

Houston Mayor Annise Parker will move to extend health and life insurance benefits to same-sex legal spouses of city employees, despite a 2001 city charter amendment that was put to the voters specifically to prohibit the practice.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker at the Texas Democratic Party's convention in Houston on June 8, 2012.

The Big Conversation

Houston Mayor Annise Parker will move to extend health and life insurance benefits to same-sex legal spouses of city employees, despite a 2001 city charter amendment that was put to the voters specifically to prohibit the practice.

A legal fight is all but assured, with Parker's action possibly putting Texas' constitutional prohibition on gay marriage on a collision course with the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal over the summer of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Parker relied on an opinion from City Attorney David Feldman in deciding to move forward, reported the Houston Chronicle's Mike Morris and Jayme Fraser"We believe that the only constitutional, just, right and fair thing to do is to extend benefits to all of our married employees, whether they are heterosexual or same-sex couples," Parker said.

Parker's action, though, appears to be in conflict with a city charter amendment passed by voters in 2001, which denies city benefits "to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children." Parker said she believed that her action was not in conflict with the charter. "I can only assume that it was contemplated that there would never be a time when same-sex couples were in legally sanctioned relationships," she said.

Her critics, though, were not buying the argument, Morris and Fraser reported.

"My understanding of the Texas state law is that you cannot be legally married unless you're the opposite sex in the state of Texas, and that will be the overriding thing," said Doug Wilson, the leader of the effort to pass the charter amendment. "They're just trying to monkey with the words. I will absolutely take this all the way to the Supreme Court."

The Associated Press' Juan A. Lozano reported that Parker's action also puts her in conflict with Attorney General Greg Abbott, who issued an opinion in April saying policies by local jurisdictions that extend benefits to same-sex partners violate the state constitution. Abbott acted after some Texas cities, like Austin and El Paso, offered benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

The difference here is that Houston is offering benefits to legal spouses, now including same-sex spouses who presumably have been married outside of Texas. Lozano talked to University of Houston law professor Thomas Oldham, who said that "unlike domestic partner policies in other Texas cities, Houston's policy is more vulnerable to legal challenge because of the state's constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. What Houston has done 'would be more squarely in violation of the constitutional provision.'"


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Quote to Note"It is clear that Mayor Parker has interpreted her re-election as a mandate to not only ignore the Texas State Constitution but now even the Houston City Charter, with the cover of the City Attorney issuing a flawed legal opinion." — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council, accusing Houston Mayor Annise Parker of overstepping her authority by extending health and life insurance benefits to legally married same-sex spouses of city employees.


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