UT wisely expands same-sex partner benefits to comply with Obergefell ruling

Davis Clark

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in the widely celebrated Obergefell v. Hodges ruling looks set to become a canonical text for LGBT civil rights. The 5-4 ruling found constitutional protection for same-sex marriage within both the Fourteenth Amendment and legal precedent, thus allowing same-sex marriage in the entirety of the United States.

Despite the huge implications this has for LGBT rights, backlash has emerged as widely as celebration, appearing in many forms. The four dissenting judges all make some form of criticism against either the majority’s overextension of the role of the Supreme Court or the infringement upon traditional religious and social values. Similar concerns have come from the mouths of major Texas politicians as well as presidential candidates.

Two days after the Court’s ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement that declares “the lawless decision by an activist Court” creates a “fabricated” constitutional right that does not infringe upon Justices’ or County Clerks’ right to deny conducting same-sex weddings or issuing same-sex marriage licenses, respectively. The merits of these criticisms, and the extent to which they will be used to fight the recent ruling, will play out in the coming months.

The University of Texas at Austin, however, has swiftly implemented employee benefit policy changes in response to the ruling. UT issued an email to its faculty delineating the changes on Monday, which announced that beginning July 1 same-sex married couples will enjoy the benefits once reserved exclusively for straight married couples.

The University’s swift and comprehensive response was impressive for several reasons. First, the policy change was quite dramatic given the few benefits allowed prior. The University offered several important benefits, like Federal Family Medical Leave for the birth or adoption of a partner’s child, Employee Assistance Program counseling for couples and access to UT Childcare. But now, comprehensive health insurance (medical, vision and dental coverage), the long sought after pillar of employee benefits, is available to same-sex married faculty.

Second, the University added substance to its brand as a progressive institution, intent on changing the world and remaining one of the nation’s foremost research universities. Numerous corporations have thrown their support behind the Obergefell decision with new PR campaigns and policy changes. The University’s support, more policy than PR, is unique when considering the scope of pushback Texas leaders have instigated and demonstrates a professionalism that sets it apart from the Capitol and Attorney General’s Office. Some could levy the charge that the University should have done more for such rights before the ruling, which would not be entirely unjustified given the years of lobbying done by UT’s Pride and Equity Faculty and Staff Association and Invest in Texas. But, those charges have now been satisfied by such comprehensive policies now in place.

Finally, the University remains competitive with other nationally ranked universities in recruitment of top faculty. The University’s leveling of benefits has removed many of the issues that previously hindered same-sex applicants from working there. Issues like job benefits, retirement plans, finding work for partners and others all previously undermined the University’s appeal to same-sex applicants. Now, the University appeals to both same-sex applicants as well as those that highly valued equal treatment of LGBT faculty.

As a student, I am pleased with the University’s commitment to the well-being of its faculty and the concerns of its students. In the wake of this momentous civil rights victory and with concern for the legal battles it faces in Texas’ future, the University acted with the speed and appropriateness that it will surely remember with great satisfaction.

Clark is an English senior from Lake Highlands.