BREAKING: DART vote delays passage of domestic partner benefits

Mike.Mohammed

DART Vice President of Diversity Michael Mohammed

A vote late this afternoon on partner health benefits by the DART board continues discussion until the next committee meeting.

The DART board met behind closed doors for more than half an hour to discuss the health plan before opening the meeting to visitors. The plan they were discussing was approved by the administrative committee earlier this month.

The plan under consideration is comparable to those adopted by the city of Dallas, DFW Airport, Austin and El Paso.

One motion to table discussion until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the California Proposition 8 case was defeated by a 7-6 vote that largely pitted Dallas delegates against the suburbs.

But because there were questions about the actual cost of claims, not just premiums, the board decided to continue discussion to the next meeting instead of passing the proposal for its second vote to the next committee-of-the-whole. From approval of the committee-of-the-whole, the proposal then goes to the board on a later date for approval.

Michael Mohammed, DART vice president for diversity, gave the committee estimated premium costs for the plan that will range from $60,748 to $734,849. But he didn’t have a figure on the cost of claims. DART, like many large corporations, is self-insured. Board members said they were only asking actuarial questions.

If a dependent contracted cancer, how much would that cost DART, one board member asked.

But premiums are determined actuarially to cover claims. So if the premium is figured correctly, the cost of the new participants would be covered.

Instead, the discussion will continue at the next meeting on March 5. At that meeting, the proposal could be sent to the committee-of-the-whole for second approval and then to the full board for final approval in April.

—  David Taffet

Measure would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Houston

Charter amendment could also allow DP benefits for city workers

DANIEL WILLIAMS  |  Contributing Writer

HOUSTON — Long-brewing plans to place a city-wide non-discrimination policy before Houston voters became public this week.

Since December a coalition of organizations and leaders have been working to draft a city charter amendment that would make it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment or public accommodations on the basis of  “age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or physical characteristic.”

The amendment would also remove anti-LGBT language added to the Houston city charter in 1985 and 2001 — which could allow the City Council to vote to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who famously became the only out LGBT person elected mayor of a major American city in 2009, has declined to comment on the proposed charter amendment until the language is finalized. She told the Houston Chronicle: “I believe it’s important for the city of Houston to send a signal to the world that we welcome everybody and that we treat everybody equally, and depending on the elements of what was actually in it, I might or might not support it,”

According to Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman, the prospect of Houston voters approving the non-discrimination amendment has ramifications for efforts to pass similar measures in the state Legislature.

“Nondiscrimination in Houston builds a better case for us when we go for nondiscrimination in Austin,” said Coleman. “To be able to tell representatives that they represent areas that already support these efforts is very helpful.”

The cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all already have similar nondiscrimination ordinances and offer DP benefits to employees.

But Houston’s form of governance makes this effort unique. While the City Council is empowered to pass city ordinances covering issues of discrimination, they can be overturned by popular vote if those opposing the ordinance collect 20,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

That was the case in 1985 after Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire pushed through the council the city’s first protections for gay and lesbian Houstonians (no protections were provided for the bisexual or transgender communities).

A coalition of right-wing voters led by Louie Welch, then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, was able to place the issue on a city-wide ballot, claiming the policy “promoted the homosexual lifestyle.” The group also recruited a “straight slate” of candidates to run against City Council members who had favored the protections, with Welch running against Whitmire.

The public vote on nondiscrimination was held in June 1985 and Welch’s forces prevailed, but the city’s temperament had changed by the time of the City Council and mayoral races in November. A comment of Welch’s that the solution to the AIDS crisis was to “shoot the queers” was aired on local TV and few in Houston wished to be associated with him after that. The “straight slate” failed to capture a single City Council seat and Whitmire remained mayor, but the defeat of the city’s nondiscrimination policy remained.

By 1998 Houston had changed: Annise Parker was serving as the city’s first out lesbian city council member and Houston boasted the state’s first out gay judge, John Paul Barnich. Mayor Lee Brown, sensing the change, issued an executive order protecting LGBT city employees from employment discrimination. But the city had not changed that much. Councilman Rob Todd led efforts to fight the order in court, arguing that since voters rejected city-wide protections from discrimination in 1985, it was inappropriate for the mayor to institute them without voter approval. The city spent the next three years defending the policy in court, finally emerging victorious.

The joy of that 2001 victory would be shortlived, however. That year Houston’s voters approved another amendment to the city charter, this time prohibiting the city from providing domestic partner benefits for city employees. In a narrow defeat, just over 51 percent of voters decided that the city should not offer competitive benefits.

The current proposed non-discrimination amendment would remove the language added in 1985 and 2001. While it would provide non-discrimination protections it would not require the city to offer benefits of any kind to the spouses of LGBT city employees, leaving that question back in the hands of the City Council.

The organizers of the current effort are confident that this year is the year for victory.

Noel Freeman, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which is spearheading the effort, explains that the previous votes occurred in “non-presidential years,”when voter turnout in general is low, and conservative voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate.

Additionally, polling by Equality Texas in 2010 showed that 80 percent of Houstonians support employment protections for gay and lesbian people.

In order to place the non-discrimination amendment on the November ballot the coalition supporting it will need to collect 20,000 signatures of registered Houston voters and submit them to the city clerk. Freeman says that the final charter amendment language is still under consideration and that once it is finalized the group will begin collecting signatures.

Even former Councilman Todd, who once fought the city’s policy of non-discrimination for LGBT employees, supports the current effort.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

DP benefits becomes an election issue in El Paso, as anti-gay candidates pack ballot for council

Minister Manny Hinojosa, a candidate for El Paso City Council, is a leading opponent of DP benefits: “I’ve got God and the Holy Spirit on my side and if you ever get on your knees and pray you’ll find out,” Hinojosa said at City Council in November.

Anti-gay candidates are lining up to run for City Council in El Paso in the wake of the controversy over the council’s decision to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of city workers. ABC-7 reports that at least one candidate affiliated with a movement to rescind DP benefits has filed to run in every City Council race. After the City Council approved DP benefits, voters passed a ballot measure to rescind them in November. Groups representing city workers sued in federal court to block the ballot measure from being implemented, and a judge is expected to rule in the case in April. Watch video of the story here.

—  John Wright

Obama again mentions ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in State of the Union, but not gay marriage

HRC welcomes comments; GetEQUAL sees missed opportunity

LISA KEEN | Keen News Service

President Barack Obama once again brought up the issue of gays in the military during his annual State of the Union address. Last year, he called for repeal of the federal law barring openly gay people from serving. This year, just a month after having signed a bill to repeal that law, the president urged universities which have barred military recruiters over the gay ban now allow recruiters back on campus.

“Our troops come from every corner of this country — they are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

That drew applause.

“And with that change,” continued Obama, “I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”

That drew a brief standing ovation.

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese welcomed President Obama’s words concerning the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell,” but added that “there remain a number of pressing issues for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community when it comes to economic security.”

“The President and Congress can do much more to ensure the economic empowerment of LGBT people including ending the unfair taxation of partner health benefits, prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and ensuring that all married couples have access to the same federal benefits and protections for their families,” said Solmonese, in a statement released before the president delivered his address to Congress. “We look forward to working with this President and allies in Congress on the challenges ahead.”

But Robin McGehee, director of the activist group GetEQUAL, expressed disappointment.

“Tonight, President Obama missed an opportunity to lay out an agenda and strategy that continues progress made toward LGBT equality – removing the burden of being second-class citizens and acknowledging our families,” said McGehee, in a statement.

“Sadly, while national hero Daniel Hernandez sat with the First Lady to witness this historic speech, he did not have the luxury of sitting there as an equal – for that, our elected officials should be ashamed. It is time for the President to put the power of the White House behind the passage of legislation that would give the right of full federal equality to LGBT Americans. As a community, it is our promise and our obligation to continue the work of holding both the President and Congress accountable for the inalienable human rights, dignities, and freedoms we all deserve.”

He did not, as some LGBT activists had urged, set a new goal for Congress — repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

President Obama did include an openly gay man as one of his special guests in the House visitors’ gallery Tuesday night.

The man was Daniel Hernandez Jr., who was singled out by many news accounts as one of the heroes to take action during the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. Hernandez, who was serving as an intern in Giffords’ Tucson office, rushed to her side and provided first aid that many have said saved the congresswoman’s life.

A number of Twitter messages from various people noted that Tuesday was also Hernandez’s 21st birthday. One Twitter message was from the account of Rep. Giffords, saying: “From the entire Giffords team: Happy 21st Birthday Daniel Hernandez! Sounds like you have fun plans tonight.”

CNN indicated it was the first Twitter message from Rep. Giffords’ account since she was critically injured in a shooting January 8. Giffords is still recovering from her wounds and is at a rehabilitation hospital in Houston.

Cameras scanning the gallery showed Hernandez early during the broadcast of the State of the Union. But Hernandez appeared to be standing near the back of the gallery, not seated near First Lady Michelle Obama, as expected.

In response to concerns about the hostile political environment, many members of Congress eschewed the usual seating arrangement of Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other, and sat together.

Three of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices chose not to take seats at all and did not attend the State of the Union address. They were the three most conservative — Justices Antonin Scalia, Sam Alito, and Clarence Thomas.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

El Paso may put DP benefits back on ballot

After a ballot measure passed in November to rescind domestic partner benefits for El Paso employees, the City Council is considering another ballot measure to restore them. The November ballot measure sponsored by religious groups aimed to take away benefits for the partners of gay and lesbian employees. However, because it was so vaguely worded, the ballot measure also threatened benefits for the partners of retired city workers, and it’s now the subject of a federal lawsuit.

The El Paso Times reports on the latest development:

The El Paso City Council on Tuesday introduced a proposed ordinance for a May ballot initiative that would restore health benefits to gay and unmarried partners of city employees.

The public rescinded those benefits in the Nov. 2 election, but they remain in effect while the courts hear a lawsuit in the matter.

The council did not discuss the proposed ordinance or take public comment on it. A public hearing will be held in coming weeks. If the City Council does not vote to put the matter on the ballot, supporters still can do so by gathering enough signatures on a petition.

—  John Wright

Lambda Legal DOMA case heard in California

After the “don’t ask, don’t tell” win this week, mainstream media immediately looked for what we’d be after next. An ABC affiliate in California picked up on partner benefits.

A Lambda Legal case, Golinski v. US Office of Personnel Management, was heard before a district court judge in Northern California on Dec. 17.

“Here it’s very difficult for the government to justify giving unequal health insurance to employees that are doing equal work,” said Lambda Legal Marriage Project Director Jennifer Pizer.

The government’s case is based on the Defense of Marriage Act, which they claim is the basis for denying an employee’s partner health benefits.

In this case, Karen Golinski is an attorney who worked for the San Francisco Federal Appeals Court. She has been a federal employee for 19 years. In 2008, she married her partner. They have a 7-year-old son. Denying her wife benefits given other employees is discriminatory, she claims.

As in other recent cases, this one puts the Obama administration in the position of saying it supports the repeal of DOMA, then sending an attorney to defend the law. If Golinski wins, the ruling probably will apply only to her case.

—  David Taffet

El Paso City Council to vote today on overturning ballot initiative that rescinded DP benefits

You gotta love this story out of El Paso.

Last year, the City Council voted to add health benefits for the unmarried partners of city workers, both gay and straight.

Then some anti-gay nutjobs got an initiative on the ballot to rescind the benefits, and it passed.

However, city officials say the wording of the initiative was unclear, likely confusing voters and possibly outlawing benefits for the spouses of retirees. So today the council is poised to overturn the initiative and place a new one on the ballot in May, The El Paso Times reports.

Of course backers of the initiative are crying foul, saying it’s not about the gay thing anymore, but the “will of the people.” And ordinarily we might agree with them, but not when a popular vote has been used to take away people’s rights.

Speaking of which, as long as we’re overturning ballot initiatves based on confusing language, maybe someone ought to take a look at that constitutional amendment that passed a few years back. Sure sounds like it actually banned heterosexual marriage.

—  John Wright

El Paso voters rescind domestic partner benefits for city workers — and possibly for retirees too

El Paso was home to one of the few, if not the only, anti-gay initiative on the ballot anywhere in the U.S. on Tuesday. And The El Paso Times reports that the measure to roll back domestic partner benefits for city employees passed easily:

The ballot initiative was supported by conservative religious groups that took aim at the city’s domestic partners ordinance from the time that it was passed by the City Council last year. But the way the initiative was worded caused confusion among some voters — and questions about how city officials will implement it.

“I’m sure there will be some legal action,” Mayor John Cook said.

Fewer than two dozen city employees receive the benefit. Opponents say it sends the message that the city approves of homosexuality and of heterosexual couples living out of wedlock.

And the initiative struck a chord with a majority of the El Paso electorate.

The story goes on to say there are problems with the wording of the initiative, which says, “The city of El Paso endorses traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.”

The meaning of “endorse” is unclear, according to the mayor, and city legal staff says the measure could be interpreted to exclude retirees from DP benefits.

Good. Let’s hope it gets tied up in court for a long time.

—  John Wright

Hate gets expensive in El Paso

El Paso

El Paso for Jesus has forced a special election in the West Texas city. No, El Paso for Jesus did not get Jesus on the ballot; they got domestic partnership benefits on the ballot, according to the El Paso Times.

And like any good Christian group, they’re against health care. At least they’re against it for people who aren’t married heterosexuals.

The cost of putting the issue on the ballot is more than the cost of the benefits. Currently, the benefits are offered to the unmarried partners of city employees, both gay and straight.

The election will cost $131,000. The benefits to 19 couples that registered to receive them cost $28,770.

And now, to top it all off, the thoughtful folks at El Paso for Jesus are offering to marry at no charge any of the straight couples. No word on how tasteful the weddings will be, but hell, a free wedding is a free wedding. What else do you need? And for the gay couples, they have offered to turn them straight. The head of the group called it “get free of homosexuality.” He said that he has found that “homosexuals can be set free.” He did not point to an example of his successful counseling or explain how gays are now in captivity.

The way the ballot initiative is worded, domestic partner benefits could be offered only to “city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.” Retirees would be excluded from benefits. They could even lose their pensions. Oops.

Of course, El Paso for Jesus claims this wasn’t their intent. But the city attorney said that’s what’s on the ballot and if that’s what’s voted into law, the city will have no alternative but to uphold the law. So groups like the police and retired firefighters aren’t too keen on this ballot initiative.

Domestic partner benefits were first debated after an incident in El Paso in 2009 where five men were removed from a fast food taco restaurant after two of them kissed.

—  David Taffet

NJ Supreme Court rejects gay marriage case

ANGELA DELLI SANTI  |  Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s Supreme Court won’t consider whether the state’s civil union law provides equal rights to gay couples before the case is heard in a lower court.

The court announced Monday, July 26 it cannot consider the merits of the claim by six same-sex couples that New Jersey’s civil union law is unconstitutional until there is a trial record.

Gay couples unsuccessfully sued New Jersey four years ago for the right to marry. They claim that by creating civil unions, the state has not fulfilled a court order to treat them the same as heterosexual couples seeking to marry.

The justices were split 3-3, one vote shy of the four needed for a motion to be granted.

Justice Virginia Long, who wrote the dissenting opinion, agreed there is an insufficient record for debating the merits of the claim, but she said hearing oral arguments would have helped guide the justices on how best to go about creating a judicial record.

Steven Goldstein, who leads the state’s largest gay rights group, Garden State Equality, said the decision perpetuates the unequal legal status of same-sex couples and their children.

“Same-sex couples will continue to be denied the consistent right to visit one another in the hospital, to make medical decisions for one another, and to receive equal health benefits from employers, all because of the deprivation of the equality and dignity that uniquely comes with the word marriage,” he said in a statement.

—  John Wright