Labor Day, Walmart and me

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Jackie Cote, right, and her wife, Dee

By Jackie Cote

Special Contributor

Labor Day is the traditional end of summer.  For me it’s been a special summer with my wife Dee.

Dee has ovarian cancer, and is now receiving hospice care at our home in New Bedford, Mass. This spring we decided to start ticking items off her bucket list.

We just spent some time in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Dee’s son and daughter-in-law. There, Dee got to dip her feet in the sand and the water, collect a few shells, and spend time with family. It was fantastic.

Dee’s bucket list is pretty simple: Next we’ll go to New Hampshire, where we’ll take the scenic train route around Lake Winnipesaukee.

It’s been incredibly meaningful to both of us to spend this time together. In our 24 years together, we’ve been through thick and thin, and have always been each other’s rock. Now, when Dee is well enough, we venture out. And when she’s not, we are just making sure to appreciate every minute we have together.

Labor Day is also the day we celebrate ordinary working people. That’s very much me and Dee. For the past 16 years, I’ve served as an associate at Walmart, and for many years Dee was also a Walmart associate.

Unfortunately, on this Labor Day, I’m forced to think about how much employers respect — or disrespect — the people whose labor make their businesses successful. That’s because when I most needed my employer to come through for my family, I was shocked and disappointed that Walmart would not step up, and refused to treat my family with the respect it deserves.

I had always been concerned about Dee’s health, since she had a history of cancer. When we got married — as soon as it was legal in Massachusetts — Dee had been cancer-free for some time. And though we got married primarily for the same reason everyone does — because we love each other — it also meant we would be able to take care of each other financially and legally in the dozens of ways that straight married couples already could.

Starting in 2008 and continuing through 2012, I tried to add Dee to Walmart’s health insurance plan during Walmart’s open enrollment period, in an effort to receive a benefit that was made available to all other married Walmart employees. But when I entered Dee’s gender as “female,” the online system stopped me from going any further.

So I picked up the phone and called Walmart’s headquarters — and I was told that Walmart did not offer health insurance to the same-sex spouses of Walmart employees.

Soon, my inability to insure Dee became more than an insult, when Dee’s cancer re-emerged in August 2012. Over a short period of time, we racked up medical bills in excess of $150,000 that we were unable to pay. In addition to the nightmare of cancer, we endured the stress of being hounded by bill collectors. And Dee particularly felt guilty, being unable to pay the wonderful health workers who were providing her with such good care.

Effective Jan. 1, 2014, Walmart changed its policy to extend spousal health insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of Walmart employees. That’s a good step, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because Walmart didn’t address the fact that hundreds or possibly thousands of people like me and Dee were greatly harmed when Walmart engaged in discrimination.

The harms we suffered continue this day. It doesn’t address the fact that Walmart changed its policy voluntarily, that Walmart claims it is lawful to discriminate against gay and lesbian workers, and that Walmart could change its policy to again discriminate at any time.

Dee and I want to be able to pay back the medical professionals we owe money to, and we want to be able to focus on Dee’s health without worrying about collection calls. We also want to be able to help other people who are in our situation — former or current Walmart employees married to someone of the same sex, who were unable to get their spouses covered by Walmart’s health insurance plan before Jan. 1, 2014.

That’s why we are working with lawyers at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to sue Walmart on behalf of all the working families who were harmed by Walmart’s unlawful discrimination. We are hopeful that we can make things right for ourselves and for others.

That would make a meaningful Labor Day.

Jackie Cote is the named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit Cote v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.now pending in the federal court in Boston, Mass. Inquiries about the case, including from similarly situated employees, can be directed to gladanswers@glad.org.

—  Tammye Nash

Kentucky county clerk loses in 6th Circuit

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Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis

The Rowan County, Ky. county clerk who stopped issuing all marriage licenses so that she didn’t have to issue licenses to same-sex couples has lost the latest round of her battle in court.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied County Clerk Kim Davis a stay that would have allowed her to continue not issuing licenses in her office. Davis refused to issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples and refused to let anyone in her office issue them. After a lower court ruled against her, she stopped issuing all marriage licenses.

Davis claimed religious objections to same-sex marriage. She said she wasn’t inconveniencing anyone because they could just go to another county and get a marriage license.

In its decision the court wrote:

“It cannot be defensibly argued that the holder of the Rowan County Clerk’s office, apart from who personally occupies that office, may decline to act in conformity with the United States Constitution as interpreted by a dispositive holding of the United States Supreme Court. There is thus little or no likelihood that the Clerk in her official capacity will prevail on appeal.”

Davis has until the end of the month to begin issuing marriage licenses before she faces contempt of court.

—  David Taffet

UPDATE: Death certificate lawsuit charges Ken Paxton with contempt of court

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James Stone died in February 2015

Neel Lane, attorney for the Texas marriage equality lawsuit, said he filed a lawsuit today in federal court in San Antonio charging Kirk Cole,  commissioner of the Department of State Health Services and Attorney General Ken Paxton with contempt of court and asking for a change on his client’s husband’s death certificate.

James Stone died in February. The death certificate lists his husband as “significant other” and Texas refuses to amend the certificate. The head of the DSHS, under instruction from Paxton, said the state will make no changed.

Lane charges that the ruling made by Judge Orlando Garcia in February 2014 and upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals applies. In his ruling, Garcia ordered the state to stop enforcing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and to offer all the same benefits of marriage to legally married same-sex couples. The order was stayed and the stay not lifted until after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

Lane’s position is that Garcia’s ruling is in effect from February 2014 so same-sex couples’ rights should at least date from there. The Obergefell decision allows couples who were married to file amended taxes that go back three years. Other rights may date back farther.

—  David Taffet

BREAKING: Dying man wants his name on his husband’s death certificate

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James Stone, left, and Jay Hoskins at their wedding last August

Jay Hoskins is battling the state of Texas to amend his husband’s death certificate and he’s on a deadline. He’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

James Stone, 32, died in January in Conroe after a battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome, a genetic autoimmune disorder. The couple legally married in New Mexico six months earlier and had been together 10 years. We told their story when churches in his hometown refused to perform a funeral service because he was gay.

Because the death occurred before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 marriage-equality ruling, Texas listed Stone as single and referred to Hoskins as “significant other.”

Hoskins is filing a lawsuit against the state but Texas claims it doesn’t have to recognize marriages performed prior to the ruling. He would like the matter resolved quickly because he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer and may only have two months to live.

His attorney, Akin Gump partner Neel Lane, holds a news conference later today and will discuss the case. Check back for updates.

—  David Taffet

After Hood County relents, several Texas counties continue to hold out

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Former state Rep. Glen Maxey

Former state Rep. Glen Maxey has made it his mission to ensure same-sex couples can receive a marriage license in any of Texas’ 254 countries.

The biggest hold out until yesterday was Hood County, southwest of Fort Worth.

Today, Maxey has his sites set on Irion and Anderson counties.

Irion County is west of San Angelo and Maxey said he has a couple contemplating a road trip there.

Palestine is the county seat of Anderson County, south of Athens.

Anderson, with a population of about 45,000, is the largest hold out in the state right now. He said if anyone in East Texas needs a marriage license to send him a message.

Here’s Maxey’s account of the drama going on in Anderson County from his Facebook page:

So the drama and gossip from Palestine (better than gay drama queens gossip) says that the Republican County Judge, one Robert Johnston “ordered the County Clerk not to issue any same sex marriage licenses and told the JP’s not to conduct any gay weddings.” I learned about this from a person who heard first hand from one of the people in the meeting where the edict came down. ( Note: None of these officials answer to the County Judge. They are independently elected public officials. But he does control their budgets for pencils and toilet paper.)

We also know that a few couples may have gone to the Anderson County Clerk Mark Staples and were refused. Reportedly, they wanted to get married immediately and they went to a nearby county and got all licensed and married.

—  David Taffet

Alabama hasn’t been happy this week

U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade

U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade

Alabama hasn’t been happy this week and its Supreme Court chief justice seems to think U.S. Supreme court rulings can be appealed. They can’t. Or don’t apply to him. They do.

U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade, the judge that declared Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, issued an order today directing all Alabama probate judges to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The order requires immediate compliance.

A violation of Granade’s order could result in a county probate judge being held liable for contempt of court, attorneys’ fees, financial penalties and any other remedies the court deems proper.

In today’s order, Judge Granade stated:

Although most of Alabama’s county probate judges are issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, some are not. The National Center for Lesbian Rights. ACLU of Alabama, Southern Poverty Law Center and Americans United who represented plaintiffs in the original case asked the judge to confirm that her order is now in effect.

—  David Taffet

Houston senator to DOJ: assure same-sex couples get marriage licenses

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State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, urged the U.S. Department of Justice today (Monday, June 29) to assure same-sex couples in Texas are not prevented from getting marriage licenses.

His request follows an opinion issued by Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, yesterday allowing county clerks and other government officials to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of their religious beliefs.

You can read Ellis’ letter here.

—  James Russell

‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood’

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In Texas, including at Fort Worth’s Celebration Community Church, you can get finally married.

Two men married tonight before hundreds of people in a hot, loud and packed Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth.

But you couldn’t tell anyone was uncomfortable. There were too many tears.

“By the powers invested in me by the state of Texas,”  the Rev. Carol West said to a cheering crowd, she pronounced the couple husband and husband.

The couple kissed.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” West yelled to the crowd.

Shortly after, West’s long-time partner, Angela, surprised the pastor with a proposal. West accepted and a little later, showing off her new ring to a friend, she quipped with a smile, “She went to Jarrod.”

Inside the church, Jesse Contreas was still floored. He married his husband a year ago in New Mexico. Now they can renew their vows here, in Fort Worth. At Celebration.

Contreas works in HIV prevention. His office celebrated when they learned the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Those of us who knew the struggle knew this was an awesome day for the LGBT community,” he said.

Tori Kujala and I talked outside of the church about her feelings.

“I said it on Facebook best, ‘free at last, free at last, Great God above, free at last,’” the 2014 Tarrant County Pride grand marshal said.

She was at work, like most other people I talked to, when she heard the news.

Her boss actually told her when the news struck.

Kathryn Omarkhail and Denise Bennett walked up and were holding hands.

They looked like any other couple there. They were enthusiastic because their marriage is finally acknowledged by their home state.

In 2005, they were barreling on Interstate 35 past Calvary Cathedral while then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the state’s ban on same-sex marriage ban, Omarkhail said. They were driving by in U-Hauls. While Perry celebrated another campaign plank that summer, they were married and moving in together.

Don Kennedy may have been joking when he asked if pastors had set themselves on fire.

“I know plenty of people ready to roast their weenies over a spit fire,” he said. He was joking.

The feeling was palpable for any veteran of the movement for LGBT equality. Even in modern day LGBT debates, the nasty rhetoric is just part of the process. Still, it stings.

Today, June 26, 2015, wherever you were, it really was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

—  James Russell

More dithering from county clerks, this time by Parker County’s clerk

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Parker County Clerk Jeane Brunson

Lord, you can really find excuses everywhere, can’t you?

Among the other county clerks hiding under the veil of discrimination is Parker County’s Jeane Bruson, according to the Weatherford Democrat.

The clerk had turned away five couples by lunchtime. She said state law prevents her from issuing licenses to same-sex couples — no matter the Supreme Court ruling or anything.

“There are several factors,” she told the paper. “One of the factors is that the State of Texas specifically states by statute that a marriage license can’t be issued for the marriage of persons of the same sex. That’s in the Family Code.”

Yet the statute she specifically evokes — forms must be issued by the Bureau of Vital Statistics — has been waived by other clerks, including in Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties.

“To alter the old form would be in violation of the law,” Brunson said. “Therefore, my call to the Department of State Health Services said that they were consulting with the Attorney General’s Office and they would notify all county clerks as soon they had been given information as to how to proceed.

She admitted she could probably get away with it. “It sounds like it could be done easily if you say it quickly but I’m not going to break the law for anyone.”

Even if there is no law to break.

—  James Russell

Denton County Clerk dithering, but insists she’s not scuttling SCOTUS decision

As I reported earlier, a Denton County same-sex couple who were denied a marriage license this morning.

Tod King and Casey Cavalier told the Denton Record Chronicle they were denied a marriage license by the county clerk’s office this morning. Visitors were later greeted by this sign:

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(Photo credit: Sean Sala)

Throughout the morning County Clerk Juli Luke’s office cited those very sacred marriage license forms distributed by the state. By 2:51 p.m., she had deferred to the following: the state Attorney General Ken Paxton, the county attorney, the Bureau of Vital Statistics…Really she just could’ve said “no, I don’t want to.” But she’d likely be held liable.

In the second to last press release, Luke defiantly stood her ground:

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(Photo credit: Sean Sala)

 

Now Clerk Luke has taken a kinder and gentler tone, per the UNT’s North Texas Daily.

To no surprise, Denton County’s Cavalier and King instead opted to get a license in Dallas County.

—  James Russell