Local governments and school districts that offer marriage benefits to same-sex partners are violating the state constitution, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott stated in an opinion Monday.
The cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso already have offered some benefits to domestic partners, while Pflugerville, outside Austin, became the state's first school district to extend similar benefits.
Tea party-backed state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston asked Abbott, a fellow Republican, to review the matter in November. Patrick argued that Texas amended its constitution in 2005 to define marriage as between one man and one woman, while prohibiting government entities from recognizing anything similar to marriage.
In a six-page opinion, Abbott found that the constitution "prohibits political subdivisions from creating a legal status of domestic partnership and recognizing that status by offering public benefits based upon it." He said city governments and school districts constitute political subdivisions.
In Fort Worth, openly gay Councilman Joel Burns blasted the attorney general's opinion.
"I am disappointed in Greg Abbott," he said. "However, I am not surprised that once again he is more interested in dividing Texans than bringing them together to make Texas stronger."
Jon Nelson, an Arlington attorney and president of Fairness Fort Worth, which pushed for the benefits, said the entire matter will likely end up in court.
He also was critical of Abbott's announcement.
"When this country is finally coming to the conclusion that everyone deserves respect, he's going the opposite direction," he said.
In a statement, Patrick said the measure, known as the Marriage Amendment, was passed by "an overwhelming majority of the Texas legislature and ratified by more than 75 percent of Texas voters."
"This opinion clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans," Patrick said.
Amanda Brim, a spokesman for Pflugerville Independent School District, said of Monday's opinion, "We're just reviewing it and have no response at this point."
Texas Values, a conservative advocacy group, claimed that Austin Independent School District was "attempting to be the second school district in Texas to give legal recognition to domestic partnerships."
"General Abbott's opinion now makes it clear, Pflugerville ISD and other local governmental entities in Texas are in clear violation of the Texas Constitution," said the group's president, Jonathan Saenz. "Pflugerville ISD and Austin ISD are teaching their students a terrible lesson about the importance of following the law if these rogue school districts don't immediately end their unconstitutional policy."
Saenz's group is backing House Bill 1568, a proposal that states that offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners "is essentially contrary" to the Marriage Amendment. It seeks to revoke accreditation status and even state funding to any school district that violates the constitution.
Not so fast, said Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
"The attorney general's opinion that government employers who offer domestic partner benefits are somehow in conflict with the Texas Constitution's definition of marriage is just that -- an opinion -- and we strongly disagree with him," Robertson said in a statement Monday. "Contrary to the AG's reasoning, giving an employee the ability to purchase insurance coverage for his or her family does not create a legal relationship even remotely similar to marriage."
NBC 5 reporter Scott Gordon in Fort Worth contributed to this report.