Same-sex spouse is refused tuition waiver at UT-San Antonio
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — A graduate anthropology student, the wife of an active duty Air Force captain, said the University of Texas at San Antonio denied her an in-state tuition waiver — a decision she thinks came about because she's married to another woman.
The student said she applied for the cheaper tuition by filling out a form that refers to the active duty member as either a spouse or a parent, and had it signed by her wife's commander.
There was a problem with it, she was told a few weeks later. Then came a Sept. 27 email from a UTSA admissions supervisor, she said.
A copy she provided said simply, “We regret to inform you that per our Legal Department we are unable to process your in-state tuition waiver. Your tuition will remain out-state.”
The issue is complex and still under review, UTSA spokesman Joe Izbrand said in an email Thursday.
It's also very new. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in late June, the Defense Department announced it would extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed service members.
The Texas Constitution, though, defines marriage as “only of the union of one man and one woman.”
Experts say it is all but inevitable that questions over benefits for same-sex spouses will arise where state and federal policies differ.
Last month, the Texas National Guard's commander asked the state attorney general whether he could process applications for military benefits for those couples.
Dallas-based attorney Paul Castillo is looking into the UTSA student's situation. His organization, Lambda Legal, is representing the same-sex spouse of an Army National Guard member who wasn't able to register for benefits at Camp Mabry in Austin.
In the UTSA case, a portion of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 might apply, Castillo said, because it requires public universities that receive funding from the U.S. Education Department to charge in-state tuition rates to active duty armed forces members, their spouses and dependent children.
Because of the current government shutdown, nobody at the federal agency could be reached for comment on how the act might affect Texas public universities.
The UTSA student, 28, requested anonymity, fearing publicity would affect her job — she is a midwife — and that of her wife, 29, a flight commander stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington state about a year ago and then legally tied the knot in Seattle in July, about a month after the captain was transferred from Georgia to San Antonio, the student said.
The student said she began working on a doctorate in medical anthropology at UTSA this semester. She is taking one course, which costs nonresident graduate students about $3,400 instead of the roughly $1,300 for a Texas resident, according to UTSA's website. She's also finishing prerequisites for a nursing degree at San Antonio College.
The student said she received in-state tuition at SAC without a problem. A SAC spokeswoman was not able to clarify that school's policy on Thursday.
An admissions official at UTSA told the student her application for in-state tuition had hit a snag when she called to ask about it several weeks after filing it.
“She said, 'Is it your parent or your spouse that we're talking about?' I said, 'It's my spouse' and then she said, 'That is a problem. I need to talk to more people. I've never had this before.'”
The student said she asked the official how she knew about her same-sex marriage, surmising that was the problem, and the official said it was the spouse's name on the gender-neutral form.
Izbrand, the UTSA spokesman, in a statement Thursday, said the school “is proud to be nationally recognized as a military friendly university.”
He continued, “We are equally as proud to be a university whose core values include inclusiveness and respect. We are committed to providing a diverse and positive environment in which all of our students, faculty and staff can thrive.”
He added, “This is a complex issue that deserves thoughtful deliberation and it is still under review.”
Karen Adler, a spokeswoman for the University of Texas System, said the system does not have a policy on tuition for same-sex spouses of military personnel.
“The UT System continuously reviews its policies to ensure they are consistent with our mission and comply with applicable laws,” Adler said in a subsequent written statement. “As is required by law, UT institutions grant resident tuition to eligible students, including eligible military personnel, veterans and their spouses and children.”
The evolving definition of marriage and associated benefits is one of a number of legal and political flashpoints over gay rights that have seen sharp debate this year.
The San Antonio City Council was engulfed in controversy as it argued and adopted changes to the city's nondiscrimination ordinance to include protections for people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
A military spouse or dependent can get access to in-state tuition rates under state law, said Dominic Chavez, spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“Those decisions as to whether a spouse or dependent of a military member qualifies or does not qualify ... are made at the institutional level,” he added.
Chavez said he thinks there will likely be more debate and possible court cases as people ask, “Does the change at the Department of Defense trigger anything? And where does state law comport with that? And does it have to?”
If the student is facing a situation in which the military is treating her as married but UTSA is not, “that kind of illustrates one of the problems going forward,” said Mark Cochran, a St. Mary's University law professor. “Spouses are married and then when they move to a state like Texas, they theoretically become not married as a matter of state law.”
Jim Harrington, director and attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project said he expects a plethora of cases to arise in similar situations but said he finds this instance particularly offensive because, “We have this big mantra about respecting military. ... However, in this case, we're not going to treat you as we treat other military.”
The student said she understands ideologically and politically why her situation “makes sense,” but thinks it's time that things change.
“To feel like we've moved to a place outside of our control and then thrown ourselves at it and be paid back with disdain and discrimination is really hard,” she said.