(CN) – A federal judge in El Paso, Texas, continued an injunction against a new law that would strip health benefits from the gay or unmarried domestic partners of city employees, as well as some retirees and elected officials.
El Paso’s city council voted to extend benefits to domestic partners of city employees in 2009, but a ballot initiative for “traditional family values” that passed on Nov. 2, 2010, limited benefits to only city employees and their legal spouses and dependent children. In addition to forcing out gay employees’ domestic partners, the law would affect retirees who are eligible for benefits through another employer and elected officials who are not technically employees.
“At the hearing, the city could not cite any source that identifies or defines what traditional family values are,” U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo wrote on Jan 13. “Without being able to identify what traditional family values are, it is difficult to conceive how advancing such an elusive concept can possibly be a legitimate government interest.”
A cadre of people who would have been eligible for benefits before the ordinance passed – one retiree, two gay couples and six judges – sued to block the law in December, winning several injunctions on the county and federal level. The previous injunction was set to expire on Jan. 13, but Montalvo’s order will keep it in effect until the court issues a final verdict.
The plaintiffs claim that the ordinance is unconstitutional and unenforceable, arguing several state and constitutional claims. They say that endorsing traditional family values is not a legitimate government purpose and, even if it were, the law does not achieve that objective. El Paso contends that traditional family values are a legitimate government objective served by the ordinance, which also addresses budgetary concerns.
In a ruling dated Jan. 13, U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo found that the plaintiffs “will likely succeed on the merits of their claim.”
Montalvo agreed that city employees are the third-party beneficiaries of a contract between the city and its insurer, Aetna, and that El Paso cannot unilaterally alter the terms of the contract.
The judge also challenged the city’s argument for family values.
“While the city argues that endorsing family values is a broad social policy, there is no case law that supports government intrusion into contracts for such a goal,” the ruling states.
For an ordinance meant to highlight the positive qualities of marriage, it actually punishes many married people, including retirees, Montalvo continued.
“While the ordinance passed by majority in a popular vote, this does not determine its constitutionality,” Montalvo wrote. “The prudent thing is to take the time to fully study the subject and, in the meanwhile, preserve everything as is.”