JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Missouri's main health care and retirement plans are expanding benefits to same-sex spouses following a court ruling requiring the state to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere.
The decisions about state benefits come as Republican legislative leaders on Thursday continued to criticize Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster for not aggressively defending the state's constitutional prohibition of gay marriage.
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge J. Dale Youngs ruled last Friday that Missouri must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states or countries — the first ruling to put a dent in the state's constitutional ban. Koster announced Monday that he won't appeal, stating that "Missouri's future will be one of inclusion, not exclusion."
Koster's announcement came the same day the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear appeals of several rulings striking down gay marriage bans in various states. Missouri was not one of the states covered by those rulings.
The Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan cited Koster's decision while announcing on its website that it will begin covering same-sex spouses of state employees or retirees who have valid marriage certificates.
"It is good to see it happening so quickly," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Tony Rothert, who represented 10 married same-sex couples in the Jackson County court challenge.
The state health insurance plan covers 96,519 people, including employees and retirees and their spouses and children. It's not clear how many same-sex spouses and their dependents will seek coverage, but the health plan already has received some inquiries, said spokeswoman Mia Platz.
Missouri's health plan is conducting open enrollment through October for coverage starting in 2015. Platz said married same-sex couples also would be able to get coverage this year, because the court ruling is being treated as a "life event" similar to a marriage or birth that allows mid-year additions to coverage.
The Missouri State Employees' Retirement System said Thursday that it will extend existing survivor's benefit options to new retirees with same-sex spouses. About 15,000 of the plan's 41,000 retirees are enrolled in the option, which reduces pension payments in exchange for their continuation to spouses after a retiree's death, said Executive Director Gary Findlay.
Attorneys are analyzing whether the survivor's benefit option can be granted retroactively to married gay employees who already are retired, he said.
It remains illegal to perform same-sex marriages in Missouri. But that also faces a court challenge.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison heard arguments Sept. 29 in a case in which St. Louis officials ignored Missouri's constitutional provision and issued marriage licenses to several same-sex couples. Koster's office initiated a lawsuit in defense of the gay-marriage ban. Attorneys for the city and state submitted proposed orders this week to Burlison, meaning a decision could come soon.
Republican Senate and House leaders have called on Koster to more vigorously defend the gay marriage ban approved by Missouri voters in 2004.
House Speaker Tim Jones sent a letter to Koster Thursday urging him to change his mind about appealing the Jackson County decision. Jones wrote that he will "use the powers granted to the Missouri House to ensure our state's constitution is defended in court."
Jones told The Associated Press that one option being studied is whether legislative leaders can attempt to intervene.
"If the attorney general is not going to do his job, then the legislative branch owes a duty to the people and the constitution to defend the laws," said Jones, R-Eureka.
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