AUSTIN (KXAN) - The Texas Constitution prohibits local governments and school districts from "creating a legal status" for people in same-sex relationships and offering domestic partnership benefits to those couples, the Texas attorney general said in an official opinion released Monday.
The opinion, handed down in response to a request from Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick, appears to deal a blow to the city of Austin, Travis County government and the Pflugerville Independent School District. Patrick asked for the ruling after PISD granted same-sex benefits to district employees last year.
The ruling was signed by Attorney General Greg Abbott, refers to the 2005 amendment to the Texas Constitution that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
"By creating domestic partnerships and offering health benefits based on them, the political subdivisions have created and recognized something not established by Texas law," Abbott wrote in the opinion.
Abbott also said in the opinion that simply extending a benefit such as health coverage does not mean a subdivision has violated the state Constitution. But because the political subdivision that extend benefits to same-sex couples require them to prove eligibility under varying criteria, the subdivisions essentially give same-sex couples equal status as married couples.
Chuck Smith, the executive director of the pro-gay rights group, Equality Texas, said the opinion leaves open the possibility that local governments can craft ways to continue same-sex benefits.
"There are nuances to the AG opinion that do not preclude the issuance of benefits to unmarried dependents," Smith said. "The benefit plan just has to have eligibility requirements that don't resemble a marriage."
The Attorney General's office says in its website that opinions "are highly persuasive and are entitled to great weight. However, the ultimate determination of a law's applicability, meaning or constitutionality is left to the courts."
Texas Values, a conservative organization that opposes legal status for same-sex couples, said Abbott's opinion validates its claim that local governments that offer the benefits exceeded their authority.
"General Abbott's opinion now makes it clear, Pflugerville ISD and other local governmental entities in Texas are in clear violation of the Texas Constitution," said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values.
"Pflugerville ISD and Austin ISD are teaching their students a terrible lesson about the importance of following the law if these rogue school districts don't immediately end their unconstitutional policy."
Patrick said the opinion makes clear that local governments "cannot subvert the will of Texans."
The Pflugerville school district did not have an immediate reaction. A district representative said the opinion was still being evaluated.
In December, Pflugerville Superintendent Charles Dupre said that the when the policy originally was set, the decision was made by the district's Insurance committee and was not required to be voted on by the board. Rather than being a political statement, he said, it was a business decision that does not cost the district or the taxpayers.
The school district only covers the district employee. The employee is required to pay the premium for any dependents on the policy. It was the first school district in Texas to offer same-sex partners benefits.
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