The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to overturn a Texas ruling that raised questions about the rights of couples in same-sex marriages.
The controversy arose in June when the Texas Supreme Court revived a lawsuit that sought to eliminate benefits offered to the same-sex spouses of city of Houston employees, ruling that the right to a marriage license did not automatically entitle same-sex couples to spousal insurance benefits.
Houston appealed, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court needed to step in to protect the integrity of its 2015 ruling establishing a right to same-sex marriage.
The high court, however, rejected the appeal without comment, allowing the Texas ruling to stand.
“What an incredible early Christmas present from the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and a lawyer representing the two gay-marriage opponents who had sued to overturn Houston’s same-sex benefits.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy organization GLAAD, predicted that Monday’s action will open the door to “an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step.”
“The Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples,” Ellis said.
Lawyers for Houston had argued that the Texas court blatantly ignored an essential point in the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision — that equal treatment under the law demands equal access to all benefits of marriage regardless of the sex of your spouse.
“Equal recognition of same-sex marriage requires more than a marriage license; it requires equal access to the constellation of benefits that the state has linked to marriage,” the city’s lawyers told the court.
Texas court reversal
Opponents of gay marriage had urged the high court to reject Houston’s appeal, arguing that it did not open the door to discrimination, as city officials had claimed.
The Texas court merely said that the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges did not answer or resolve all marriage-related questions, including whether governments must provide the same benefits to same-sex couples that are provided to opposite-sex couples, the lawyers argued.
The conflict began in 2013, when Houston under then-Mayor Annise Parker began offering employee benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees who had been legally married in other states.
Opponents of gay marriage sued, prompting a district judge to block the benefits, ruling that they violated a state law and constitutional amendment barring government recognition of same-sex marriages. While Houston’s appeal was pending, however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state bans on gay marriage in June 2015, ruling that they treated gay couples as second-class citizens in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.
A state appeals court responded by allowing Houston to offer spousal benefits to same-sex couples, saying the ruling ended the controversy in the city benefits case.
The Texas Supreme Court apparently agreed, rejecting a bid to reinstate the lawsuit in September 2016, and Houston continued offering the benefits.
But opponents of gay marriage launched a pressure campaign, sending a barrage of emails and letters to the all-Republican court warning of retribution in the GOP primaries if they did not reconsider.
Republican leaders — including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton — added their voices to the campaign, telling the nine judges that the case offered an opportunity to limit the impact of the high court’s ruling on gay marriage.
In a rare reversal, the state Supreme Court relented, accepting the case and eventually ruling that there is no established right to spousal benefits in same-sex marriages.
Back to Houston court
The ruling returned the lawsuit to a Houston district court to determine whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage ruling applies to spousal benefits provided by Houston.
The district court had not taken action on the lawsuit while the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was pending, but that should change in the coming weeks, Saenz said.
“We’ll be meeting with our clients and our team on how to go forward,” he said.
“Mayor Annise Parker defied the law by providing spousal benefits to same-sex couples at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in Texas, and we intend hold the city accountable for Parker’s lawless actions and her unauthorized expenditures of taxpayer money,” Saenz said.
Jim Griffin, a Dallas lawyer who advises businesses on employee benefits plans, surmised that Houston’s appeal was rejected because the Supreme Court did not have a final decision on marriage benefits to examine. That will change once the Texas courts reach a decision, he said.
“The court’s action should not be seen as the final word, but instead is just another milepost on the road to understanding what benefit plan rights are part of same-gender marriages. Even the Supreme Court knows that it will likely see this case again,” Griffin said.
A Houston district court will consider a lawsuit challenging Houston’s policy of offering spousal benefits to same-sex employees. That lawsuit had been revived by the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year.