By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas, March 26 (Reuters) - A U.S. district judge in Texas on Thursday issued a stay to halt the U.S. Labor Department from implementing a rule that would expand medical leave protections for same-sex couples, saying the move impinges on the rights of states that ban gay marriage.
The state of Texas, which has a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, last week sued the Labor Department over the rule that would grant family medical leave protections to all married same-sex couples.
"The public maintains an abiding interest in preserving the rule of law and enforcing the states' duly enacted laws from federal encroachment," wrote Reed O'Connor, a district judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.
Texas was the first challenge to the department's rule, which is set to take effect on Friday. Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska also joined the suit.
The rule requires companies to follow the marriage laws of the states in which their employees were wed, rather than where they reside, for the purpose of applying the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. That law requires employers to grant workers unpaid leave after giving birth or to care for sick family members.
"We are pleased that the Department of Labor's effort to override our laws via federal rule-making has been halted, and we will continue to defend our sovereignty in this case," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.
The rule has been hailed by gay rights groups and attorneys who represent workers and has divided employers. Some companies say it will impose a hefty burden on them to know the relevant laws and employees' personal information. Others say the opposite, that a uniform policy will ease the financial stress of complying with a patchwork of laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court next month is scheduled to consider for the first time whether there is a constitutional right to marry. A ruling in favor of same-sex couples would likely moot the family leave issue.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Daniel Wiessner in New York; Editing by Eric Beech)