Revisiting El Paso’s Domestic Partners Issue

dom-prtnersA reader sent me an interesting comment this weekend about El Paso’s Domestic Partner’s issue. The reader, which asked to remain anonymous, pointed out that now that the US Supreme Court has ruled on the gay issue, the protected group that the El Paso domestic partners initiative catered to is no longer necessary.

If you remember, in 2009 the city expanded the city’s health insurance benefits to include same-sex partners through a budget allocation. As a result, a petition was launched by various religious organizations, mainly under the direction of Tom Brown demanding the city stop covering unmarried couples under the city’s health insurance. The city refused and Brown and his supporters forced a referendum for voters to vote on.

El Paso voters approved the referendum denying health benefits to unmarried couples in November 2010, fifty-five to forty-five percent. At that time, about 150 city employees were covered by the expanded health insurance benefits and as a result of the referendum; they stood to lose their coverage.

Although the public debate centered on gay rights, the budget allocation by the city council was worded to include other employees that were not gay.  only two were identified at the as being in a gay relationship. Of the 150 city employees that stood to lose the expanded health coverage only two were identified as being in a gay relationship.

City council in June 2011 argued that they could not adhere to the voters’ vote and instead voted to ignore the referendum results. As a result, Tom Brown launched a recall initiative against John Cook, the mayor at the time and city representatives Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. The court system intervened and the recall failed.

An undated Domestic Partnership Affidavit that the city uses for city employees seeking health insurance benefits defines a domestic partner as follows:

A Domestic Partner is defined as an individual of the same or opposite gender as the Employee, who is 18 years of age or older, who lives in the same household for at least six months and shares the common resources of life in a close, personal intimate relationship with a City Employee, neither of whom is married or related by blood, if, under Texas law, the individual would not be prevented from marrying the Employee on account of age, consanguinity or prior undissolved marriage to another.”

The documents asks for various documents including a driver’s licenses with a common address.

Clearly, the definition the city applies to domestic partnerships is not based on same-sex marriage, even though the public policy debate around this issue revolved around gay couples unable to marry because of Texas law.

Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot impede same-sex marriages the question becomes, is the city’s domestic partnership rule still necessary?

The Domestic Partnership Affidavit clearly states that the city does not look at the gender of the applicant as a basis for the expanded healthcare benefits. However, during the public discussion the argument centered on the notion that the city’s expanded health care benefits, in essence, created a protected class of disfranchised city employees, those in gay couples.

Now that gay couples may marry in Texas, is it time to revisit the domestic partnership health benefits the city provides, or was the public policy agenda only using gay marriage as the rhetoric for providing couples unwilling to get married access to health benefits paid for by the taxpayers of the city?

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