Public employers including Texas agencies, universities and schools may now be required to extend benefits to spouses of married gay employees in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Friday that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
But when those benefits will be extended is unclear as state officials examine the high court’s ruling and consider new policies.
“At this point, all I can say is we’re aware of the ruling and we’re examining it,” said Catherine Terrell, director of governmental affairs for the state Employees Retirement System, which oversees retirement and health benefits for state employees and those of most public universities and community colleges.
A spokeswoman for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas, which serves public education employees, echoed that sentiment, saying it was also “analyzing” the ruling’s impact on the programs it administers.
The ruling is likely to have little impact on state employees’ retirement benefits, because employees can already assign any person as a beneficiary, Terrell said. But “the major benefit issue” could be with employees’ health insurance plans.
Before the Supreme Court ruling, state law did not allow a same-sex spouse to be included as an “eligible dependent” on health insurance plans subsidized by the state. (Texas pays 50 percent of the health insurance premiums for state employees.)
Extending health benefits to same-sex couples could be dependent on the interpretation of “spouse.”
The Texas Constitution does not explicitly define “spouse,” but indicates that marriages between same-sex couples are not permissible and should not be recognized. But the Supreme Court ruled that states could not bar same-sex couples from marrying, and must recognize marriages between two people of the same sex.
Asked whether the state must interpret the meaning of “spouse” to include same-sex couples, the Texas Department of Insurance deferred to the Texas attorney general’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The two major university systems, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System, were also unclear about whether they would extend benefits to same-sex couples. The two systems are the only public university systems not covered by the Employees Retirement System.
“We recognize the great interest in this ruling and are giving it our highest priority,” said UT System spokeswoman Karen Adler. “The UT System Office of General Counsel is carefully evaluating the opinion, taking into account all applicable state and federal laws, and will issue guidance to UT institutions as quickly as possible.”
Later in the day, UT-Austin president Greg Fenves tweeted that details on benefits would be available next week.
Representatives with the Texas A&M System did not respond to a request for comment on extending same-sex benefits.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott unintentionally weighed in on the matter on Friday. Early in the day, Abbott sent a memo to the heads of state agencies directing them to “preserve, protect, and defend the religious liberty of every Texan."
The governor’s directive indicated that his order “applies to any agency decision,” including granting or denying benefits. In a clarifying statement, the governor’s office said the state would not “authorize or order state agencies” to deny benefits to same-sex couples.
Legal experts agreed that when it comes to extending benefits for same-sex couples, the state is now bound by the Supreme Court ruling to recognize all marriages.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and Texas Constitution expert at the University of Houston, said the state has no legal basis to exclude same-sex couples from the benefits it offers married couples.
“If you’re legally married by the law, no agency or government can restrict you,” Rottinghaus said. “Exactly how this is applied in Texas is going to be a bit shaky.”
But he added that extending benefits to same-sex couples is inevitable. “It’s not a question of when, but how,” Rottinghaus said.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.