Above: Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton Jr., from left, addresses the media as his clients, Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth, look on Friday morning outside the federal courthouse in Austin.
Sensing that state officials will be reluctant to comply with a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, an LGBT civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking to force Texas to provide equal benefits to the same-sex spouses of public employees.
Lambda Legal filed the suit on behalf of Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth against the board and executive director of the Employee Retirement System of Texas, in U.S. district court in Austin.
Leliaert and Woolworth, who live in Denton County and have been together 14 years, were married in California in 2008. Leliaert serves as vice president for university relations and planning at the University of North Texas.
After Woolworth retired, Leliaert sought to enroll her in spousal insurance benefits at UNT in 2014, but was denied by ERS, which told her that “spouse and participant cannot have the same gender.” The lawsuit alleges Texas’ same-sex marriage bans violate the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. But Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton Jr. indicated that with the high court expected to decide that issue later this month, the suit is designed to serve as an enforcement action.
“Many officials across the state, in various capacities, have signaled they will be in no hurry to comply with the [Supreme Court] decision,” Upton said, adding that some will undoubtedly look to Attorney General Ken Paxton for guidance. “A pending lawsuit against the board of trustees and the executive director of the ERS will give us the ability to get relief for all the public employees and their dependents immediately, instead of waiting for the AG.”
Upton said in addition to state employees, the lawsuit could bring equal benefits to public school teachers, since the Teacher Retirement System of Texas operates under the same laws.
“We asked, if we could bring one enforcement action that would have the greatest effect, what would it look like?” Upton said. “Texas is a large state. Denying employment benefits to public employees is the biggest bang for the buck we could think of in one lawsuit.”
Representatives from ERS and the attorney general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Upton was joined by his clients for a news conference Friday morning outside the federal courthouse in Austin.
“The HR office was very apologetic and my colleagues at UNT are very supportive of me, but their hands are tied,” Leliaert said. “It’s distressing that the state I work for treats me as a second-class citizen. It’s hurtful and unfair.”
Leliaert said although same-sex benefits have been an ongoing conversation, the recent legislative session is one factor that motivated the lawsuit.
“There was a lot of rhetoric about not complying with the Supreme Court decision and attempts to further ban gay marriage in this state, and we felt as a couple that it was important to file this case and try to get ERS to do what’s right, prior to the Supreme Court ruling,” she said.
As tears welled up in Leliaert’s eyes, Woolworth gently placed her hand on her wife’s back. Woolworth retired from a Fortune 500 company several years ago so she could devote her life to volunteer work.
“I’m proud of her, I’m very proud of her for being willing to be that lead person that is a change agent for what needs to happen for the case for equality in Texas, and I would absolutely agree that increased rhetoric we hear in Texas causes us angst,” Woolworth said. “We think that we’re a perfect couple, we’re a strong couple, and we’re a secure couple [and] that somebody needs to take this on, so it’s a case for equality.”