By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA
EL PASO, Texas – El Paso’s City Council last week reinstated health insurance benefits to gay and unmarried couples as well as other current and former city workers who were the unintended targets of a voter-approved ordinance.
El Paso voters decided in November to give benefits only to city employees, legal spouses and dependent children. The measure was pushed by evangelist Tom Brown. But it not only made 19 gay couples ineligible, it also disqualified about 100 other partners of employees, some retirees and workers not legally considered city employees.
The City Council voted Tuesday to amend the voter-approved measure and restore coverage for everyone. Mayor John Cook, who proposed the amendment, broke a 4-4 tie.
Cal Schaefer, a retiree from the city of El Paso who said she could not afford insurance on her own.
“I am a Christian and I don’t agree with domestic partners, but I’ve been sitting at home, waiting to be officially notified if I would be left without insurance,” said Schaefer, 47.
Relieved that she will not have to shop for insurance, Schaefer said the problem could have easily been avoided by a change in the wording of the ordinance. Before the referendum, “we told Tom Brown, but he said we would not be excluded. … He just created a lot of problems needlessly.”
The El Paso Police Union took the ordinance to court. In May, a federal judge ruled that except for some police and fire department retirees protected by state laws, those affected by the ordinance had to lose their benefits.
The judge also stated in his ruling that the language of the ordinance, regardless of the consequences, was loose enough not to make it an act of discrimination. However, he said an ordinance that targeted only gays would be discriminatory.
Emma Acosta, one of four council members voted against the change, said she might have supported it, “if we could only exclude the domestic partners.”
More than 20 residents of El Paso addressed the council, with many speaking in favor of the ordinance, including Brown.
“The voters spoke loud and clear. … The federal judge affirmed that their ordinance was constitutional. What more do the people need to do to get to the city of El Paso to apply the rule of law?” Brown asked.
The pastor also said council members had a conflict of interest by voting on an ordinance that would reinstate their own insurance benefits.
Councilman Beto O’Rourke, argued that gay people are not allowed to marry in Texas “so the best next thing for them is domestic partnership.” Giving equal benefits “is the fair, logical and competitive thing to do.”
Brown said he won’t let the matter rest. He said he believes council members taking office next month will introduce a new ordinance to repeal the one passed by the current council.