Lawsuit not likely to affect domestic partner benefit policies in Texas

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Photo Credit: The Associated Press

On May 31, the First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits unconstitutional, stirring hope among LGBTQ activists and others nationwide.

Some LGBTQ advocates at UT reacted to the ruling with hope that the decision will lead to greater equality on campus, while others doubted that the court’s opinion will change Texas law or UT policy any time soon. Currently, UT only offers benefits to faculty and staff whose union adheres to Texas law.

Texas bans same-sex marriage and defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The court’s decision to strike down a key portion of the 1996 federal law comes at a time when the contest between opponents and advocates of same-sex marriage equality has intensified. For instance, on May 8, North Carolina became the 30th state to legally ban same-sex marriage. On May 9, President Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage, saying in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Alan Friedman, an English professor and outgoing chair of the UT Faculty Council, said it is unclear what lawsuit or legislation will establish marriage equality for LGBTQ individuals or allow UT to change its policy regarding domestic partner benefits.

“It is common knowledge among faculty that we have failed to recruit and retain excellent faculty because of our lack of domestic partner benefits,” he said. “I don’t know if even a Supreme Court ruling against DOMA would [change UT’s policy].”

Governor Rick Perry signed a Texas Defense of Marriage Act, which mirrors the federal statute, into law in 2003, and Texas voters passed an amendment to the Texas Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman in 2005.

Friedman said he believes the University’s administration is willing to provide its faculty and staff members who are in a same-sex relationship benefits, but has been unable to.

“I believe that the UT administration totally supports granting domestic partner benefits to faculty and staff, but that their hands are tied by state law, and repeal seems extremely unlikely given the current political climate,” Friedman said.

It is unclear what lawsuit or legislation will establish marriage equality for LGBTQ individuals or allow UT to change its policy regarding domestic partner benefits. It is well-known, however, that Texas’ opposition to equal rights for LGBTQ persons has harmed the University’s competitiveness, Friedman said.

Those state-level laws bar UT employees from receiving domestic partner benefits, said Patrick White, an outgoing student member of UT President William Powers Jr.’s LGBTQ presidential task force. The task force is charged with reviewing equal rights policies at UT and making recommendations on such policies to Powers.

“We [the University] are a charter of the state of Texas and are bound to its constitution, which denies benefits to same-sex couples,” White said.

Despite political and legal opposition to gay marriage in Texas, Queer Student Alliance director and biology senior Kent Kasischke said the federal appeals court decision on DOMA signaled a shift in the tone of the debate surrounding equality for LGBTQ persons.

“For UT students, alumni and faculty, I feel like [the DOMA ruling] is a positive chord we have all been waiting to hear, as it is a sign for future progress and equality,” Kasischke said. “It is unlikely that we will see full marriage equality for queer individuals in Texas for awhile, but I do think we will start to see increased domestic partner benefits for LGBTQ individuals.”

Torsten Knabe, former Queer Student’s Alliance vice director and music senior, said the federal ruling on DOMA may change the debate, but it will not change the University’s policy or state law.

“UT will not adopt domestic partnership benefits based on this ruling because [UT’s policy and DOMA] are not related at all,” Knabe said. “Partnership benefits are not based on marriage rights, and in no way imply a marriage or union.”

The lawsuit heard by the federal appeals court only pertains to a limited number of states, Knabe said.

“The lawsuit only involves states where same-gender marriage is already legal,” Knabe said. “Texas is not one of those states.”