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NBA Player Jason Collins Comes Out, Greg Abbott Denies Texas Same Sex Couples Rights

Yesterday, NBA basketball player Jason Collins announced he is gay, breaking what the New York Times called "one of the last great barriers in professional sports." Collins is one of the first professional athletes to announce while he is still an active player, others like John Amaechi have waited until retirement to come out of the closet. Tweets across the country proclaimed support for the Washington Wizards center.

 

Meanwhile in Texas... Attorney General Greg Abbott took action to deny same sex couples' insurance benefits. Abbott released an opinion on Monday in response to a request he received from state Senator Dan Patrick in November. In the request Patrick asked the attorney general "Does Art. 1, §32 of the Texas Constitution that defines marriage as one man and one woman and prohibits government recognition of any legal status identical or similar to marriage preclude political subdivisions of Texas from providing so-called domestic partnership benefits to their employees?" His question was a direct attack on the seven Texas communities that allow same sex couples to share insurance benefits. El Paso, the city of Austin, Pflugerville ISD, Fort Worth, the city of San Antonio, Travis County and El Paso County have all voted to allow gay couples to share insurance benefits. Now Abbott is taking those rights away.

In his response, Abbott sided with Patrick.

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Abbott received Patrick's request back in November. It seems unlikely that he is just now "getting around to it." Instead it seems a little too likely that this statement might have been completed for weeks or even months... and Abbott and his team have been waiting for the right time to strike the gay community. How conveinent that the same day the rest of the country is celebrating Collins' coming out that Abbott would do all in his power to restricts those rights. Admittedly, this could all be coincidental, but even if it is... Abbott's decision tries to stop any progress Texas was making in accepting all its citizens.

But the fight isn't over. Equality Texas sent out a letter in response to the attorney general's opinion calling his response "a road map forward." 

From Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith:

Attorney General opinions do not carry the weight of law. They are advice from the state's top lawyer. And while Attorney General Abbott opined on certain eligibility requirements of employee benefit programs that are not acceptable, he also provided very clear guidance that political subdivisions may provide health benefits to unmarried household members if the eligibility criteria are properly structured.

Indeed, the AG's opinion specifically incorporates the 2005 testimony of Representative Warren Chisum, the author of the constitutional amendment, on his legislative intent:

"This amendment to the Constitution would not negate or set aside any contract that an employer wanted to make with his employee....It does not change what a city might do. It just says that they won't recognize anything that creates the same legal status identical to or similar to marriage. It does not stop them from providing health benefits to same-sex partners. It is not intended to do that."

So, what does this mean?

It means cities, counties, and school districts seeking to remain competitive with private business can offer employee benefit programs that provide health and other benefits to unmarried household members if the eligibility criteria are properly structured.

However, eligibility should not use the term "domestic partner", or be based upon proving the existence of a "domestic partnership", or use criteria usually associated with marriage (like current marital status, or related by a certain degree of consanguinity).

It means political subdivisions can offer employee benefit programs to unmarried household members if their eligibility criteria don't look like marriage, or create something that resembles marriage.

It looks like Abbott deserves a pat on the back. He's helping move forward exactly what he was trying to stop.