McALLEN — Legislation filed Monday by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions if Texas voters overturn a constitutional ban approved in 2005.
The McAllen Democrat’s legislation would take effect next year only if a constitutional amendment proposed last week by three other Texas legislators clears two hurdles: a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers and then the support of a majority of Texas voters in November. The proposed constitutional amendment would overturn one approved by 76 percent of voters just eight years ago that prohibited same-sex marriages and civil unions.
But Hinojosa’s office pointed to changing public opinion in favor of civil unions. An October 2012 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found 69 percent of Texans were in support of some form of same-sex recognition.
Creating civil unions in Texas would provide same-sex couples the same benefits under traditional marriage, including property and homestead rights, child custody and support and workers’ compensation benefits, Hinojosa said. Civil unions would “treat same-gender couples with the dignity and respect they deserve as well as allow them the benefits to take care of their families.”
“Texans are now realizing the importance of providing same-gender couples the same protections that married couples receive,” Hinojosa said in a statement.
An October 2012 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found 36 percent of Texans believe gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry while 33 percent believe they should only be able to enter into civil unions.
Another 25 percent were opposed to both civil unions and marriage for homosexual couples.
But those numbers were up from a similar University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll completed in February 2010 that found 63 percent in favor of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships while 30 percent were opposed.
State Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed legislation last week that would repeal the constitutional amendment approved in 2005 by a majority of Texas voters. Coleman said at the time that the legislation reflected the changing “public opinion” for legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples.
While civil unions don’t guarantee all the rights of a married couple, its legal protections would be a “beginning for those who want to see equality,” said Eli Olivarez, a McAllen resident who is president of the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus, the party’s coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporters. But Olivarez said the efforts are part of a gradual effort that began last year when the Texas Democratic Party announced support for the measure in its platform.
“Things are changing,” Olivarez said. “We’ve got a president that backs it, a party that supports it and a majority of citizens that want it. In the long term, we will be victorious.”
The state effort comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments next month on whether to uphold portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. A section of the law, approved by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, defines marriage as between a man and a woman across a number of federal statutes.
The court will also hear arguments in a California case over whether the state’s voter-approved ban was constitutional. The court’s rulings could determine whether the U.S. Constitution requires recognition of same-sex marriages and whether individual states can make their own choices.
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty.