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gender & sexuality | government

Same-Sex Benefits Ban In El Paso May Also Strip Benefits From Retired Cops & Firefighters

A group of conservative Christians set out to block El Paso, Texas, from granting health-care benefits to same-sex partners of city-government employees. But the ballot measure they helped pass in November may also end up stripping benefits from others, including retired policemen and firefighters.

The measure was aimed at gay workers and their partners. The wording of the proposal, however, was vague, asking El Paso residents to endorse "traditional family values" by limiting benefits to "city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children."

So when 55% of the voters approved the measure on Election Day, they eliminated coverage for some 200 people who don't fit that description—among them elected officials, who aren't technically city employees, and many former city workers, the city says.
Now, officials are weighing what to do. Last month, the city council decided not to use its authority to repeal what is now a city law. On Tuesday, it agreed to allow the city attorney to come up with ways to amend the ordinance, which goes into effect Jan. 1. But some members warned that they would vote against any proposal that restores benefits for retirees and not for domestic partners.

The city's gay community, which usually keeps a low profile, is out protesting. Last week, activists showed up at the Word of Life Church, whose pastor organized the ballot measure, with posters reading "Jesus wouldn't take away health benefits" and "Love thy neighbor gay or straight."

The pastor, Tom Brown, is threatening to fight officials if they attempt to reinstate the benefits for gay partners. He has proposed another ballot initiative which would strip the city council of its power to amend or rescind voter-approved measures. "I'm feeling a call from God to get more involved in our government," Mr. Brown said in an interview.

Meanwhile, past and current employees are clamoring to reinstate the health benefits, and union leaders are preparing a lawsuit against the city. Counting all those city workers who would lose benefits when they retire, the number of affected people could grow to at least 10,000 over several years, said Ron Martin, president of the local police union.

"We don't want to get into a holy war with the church," he said. "I just wish they would have left us alone."

Many companies and governments have been granting domestic-partner benefits for years: 59% of Fortune 500 companies now offer them, as do scores of cities, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group that advocates for the rights of gay people. Still, in many places across the country, the practice remains controversial.

The city council in Green Bay, Wis., debated the issue after a worker asked to sign up his partner for health care, but could not agree on what to do. In Colorado Springs, Colo., benefits for city-employee partners were withdrawn in 2003, less than a year after they were first offered, and activists trying to revive them have so far been unsuccessful.

In El Paso, officials voted last year to extend benefits to domestic partners, both straight and gay; 19 people signed up, adding about $30,000 to the city's $34 million health-care budget.

The group that drew up the proposal to overturn the program could not find a lawyer to advise it and so came up with the wording on its own, Mr. Brown said.

The measure's language started raising questions from city employees and retirees before the election, and the city sent them a memo trying to explain who could be affected. But officials did not address the effects of the ballot measure with the broader public, they said, because that could have been construed as electioneering.

Some retirees are still confused, and worried they might be left without benefits on Jan. 1. "Everybody is in limbo," said George Ingram, who worked at El Paso's airport before retiring 31 years ago.

Mr. Brown admits the city's interpretation of the measure does not match what his group intended, but says city officials have to respect the will of the public. "I have no regrets," he said. "We did what was right."

But gay activists say the city is responsible for fighting against discrimination. "If you leave it up to the vote, black people would still be riding in the back of buses," said Bill Ellis, secretary for Rio Grande Adelante Inc., a local non-profit group.

As they ponder the opposing arguments, some city council members are also trying to weigh voters' intentions. Were they opposed to benefits for same-sex couples, against perks for ex-employees, or simply confused? "We have no way of knowing what they may or may not have wanted," said Beto O'Rourke, a city council member.


Source:  link to online.wsj.com