Texas Supreme Court Declines to Extend Marriage Benefits to Gay Couples — For Now

Texas Supreme Court Declines to Extend Marriage Benefits to Gay Couples — For Now

Another state trial court is going to be reviewing whether the City of Houston has the right to extend city-employee benefits to the spouses of same-sex couples, thanks to the latest decision from the Texas Supreme Court.

Sure, we just celebrated the second anniversary of Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage, but it may be too early to assume everything is going to be okay for gay and lesbian couples here in the Lone Star State.

Why? Well, because even though it's been two years — and despite the fact that public approval for gay marriage is at an all-time high in the United States — state officials are still fighting against the tide here, and now they've gotten the Texas Supreme Court to join the fray.

On Friday morning the Texas Supreme Court threw out a lower court's ruling that spouses of gay and lesbian employees are entitled to the same government-subsidized rights and benefits as the spouse of any other public employee, and ordered a lower court to conduct a new trial to consider the case again.

The case, as we've reported before, rose out of then-mayor Annise Parker's 2013 decision to give city-employee benefits to same-sex couples who had been legally married in other states. A couple of conservatives, Larry Hicks and Pastor Jack Pidgeon, argued the move was a waste of taxpayer dollars and sued the City of Houston.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision to affirm gay marriage rights, a judge tossed the Houston lawsuit. But that didn't stick and the conservatives behind the lawsuit appealed the case all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court. The highest civil court in the state initially declined to even hear their appeal, citing the Obergefell v. Hodges decision as the reason last fall.

Initially, at least.

But state officials kept pushing, and state Attorney General Ken Paxton, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick filed an amicus brief asking the court to reconsider its decision. Apparently, even when the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ringing affirmation of the rights of same-sex couples to wed, it is still somehow a thorny, complex and confusing legal question as to whether or not the equal right to marry extends to marriage benefits.

Or so we have concluded because the Texas Supreme Court agreed to take another pass at the case and has now issued a 24-page opinion claiming that there is somehow still room for state courts to poke around and explore the “reach and ramifications” of Obergefell.

The opinion works through Obergefell, quoting the beautiful words Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote about "the transcendent importance of marriage" and how marriage has long "transformed strangers into
relatives, binding families and societies together."

And then the opinion, written on behalf of the court by Judge Jeffrey Boyd, began to dissect that case.

"We agree with the Mayor that any effort to resolve whether and the extent to which the Constitution requires states or cities to provide tax-funded benefits to same-sex couples without considering Obergefell would simply be erroneous," Boyd wrote. "On the other hand, we agree with Pidgeon that the Supreme Court did not address and resolve that specific issue in Obergefell."

He further explained that — according to the Texas Supreme Court's way of thinking, at least — the U.S. Supreme Court's decision required states to license and recognize same-sex marriages, but stops short of ordering states to provide benefits to the spouses of gay and lesbian employees, or comment on whether the Texas laws blocking gay marriage are unconstitutional.

Equality Texas, a statewide organization focused on guaranteeing equal rights for LGBT people in Texas, issued a scathing statement shortly after the decision was announced:

"The justices’ holding that Obergefell v. Hodges does not require equal treatment under the law for LGBT married couples is patently indefensible. This is a sad day for Texas as our highest court joins the ranks of Mississippi and Arkansas in refusing to abide by the Constitution’s mandate to recognize the dignity and equality of all persons. Equality Texas is hopeful that the City of Houston will appeal this horrendous decision to the United States Supreme Court in order to ensure equality for the marriages of all Texans." 
The city is reviewing the decision and considering its options. In the meantime, the City of Houston’s policy to offer spousal benefits to all eligible employees remains in effect, according to a statement issued by Mayer Sylvester Turner's office.

“The City of Houston will continue to be an inclusive city that respects the legal marriages of all employees,” Turner stated. “Marriage equality is the law of the land, and everyone is entitled to the full benefits of marriage, regardless of the gender of their spouse.”

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray