Religious-Righters Howl Over Benefits for Domestic Partners in Austin-Area School District

by Dan Quinn

UPDATE: The Pflugerville ISD Board of Trustees refused Thursday night to rescind a new policy providing access to health insurance benefits for unmarried domestic partners of district employees. After hearing public testimony, the board voted 5-1 to uphold the policy. It goes into effect on January 1. From an Austin American-Statesman report:

“We’ve worked really hard in this district to teach our students that every person has value and deserves to be treated with dignity,” said Trustee Carol Fletcher, prior to the vote. “It means everyone. There are no exceptions to our policy. This is just good business.”

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For anti-gay groups, it’s not enough that the Texas Constitution bars same-sex couples from getting married. They also want to crush any effort to treat gay and lesbian families with even a shred of dignity. So religious-right activists are trying to bully the Pflugerville Independent School District Board of Trustees into reversing a decision to make health insurance available to the unmarried partners of district employees.

Trustees for the Austin-area school district will meet tonight (Thursday, December 13) to consider the issue. This follows weeks of agitating by religious-right groups like Focus on the Family-Texas Free Market Foundation Liberty Institute Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council — two of the most rabidly anti-gay groups in the state.

While the Pflugerville district pays for employee coverage, employees must pay the premiums for family members, a policy that would be extended to domestic partners, according to the Austin American-Statesman. As the Statesman reports, the district’s superintendent put the new policy for domestic partners in place in October:

While nearly 200 cities, counties and other municipalities across the country offer domestic partner benefits, Pflugerville would be the first school district in the state to do so. The move was recommended by an insurance benefits advisory committee of school workers.

Employees seeking domestic partner coverage were required to sign an affidavit stating they have jointly shared a permanent residence for at least one year and had to show proof of at least two of the following: a joint lease, mortgage or deed; joint ownership of a vehicle; joint ownership of banking or credit card accounts; or proof of power of attorney or a will attesting to the domestic partner as a beneficiary of life insurance.

Texas Values insists that the district’s policy violates the Texas Constitution. Voters in 2005 passed an amendment to the state Constitution that limits marriage to the union of one man and one woman and prohibits “this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.” The Texas attorney general is considering a request for an official opinion on whether the Pflugerville school district’s policy on benefits for domestic partners really does violate that provision.

Jonathan Saenz, the Texas Valuers lawyer/lobbyist, has attacked the “homosexual lobby and their enablers” and claims that Texans “support the definition of marriage as it has always been and reject all other legal statuses.” But a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in October showed that 36 percent of likely voters in Texas support the right of same-sex couples to marry, while another 33 percent support civil unions for such couples. Just 25 percent said they oppose legal recognition through either marriage or civil unions.

The poll didn’t ask about benefits for domestic partners. Still, it seems most Texans take a pragmatic and compassionate approach toward the issue. That’s also true for most other Americans. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that by a margin of 51 percent to 40 percent, most Americans now support same-sex marriage. Support is up from just 30 percent in 2004. So in their never-ending crusade to demonize and marginalize gay and lesbian families, the extremists at Texas Values are simply showing how far out of the mainstream they really are.

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