- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
A recent Texas Supreme Court ruling on marriage benefits was not a swipe at the rights of same-sex couples and does not need to be reviewed by the nation’s highest court, opponents of gay marriage said Friday.
The city of Houston last month asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Texas ruling, arguing that it undermines the high court’s 2015 decision that established the right of same-sex couples to marry nationwide. The Texas ruling resurrected a lawsuit seeking to void spousal benefits Houston offers to same-sex couples.
In a brief filed Friday, opponents of gay marriage urged the U.S. high court to reject Houston’s appeal, arguing that it does not open the door to discrimination, as city officials had claimed.
The Texas court merely said that the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, while acknowledging the right of same-sex couples to marry, 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 brief argued.
“The opinion never says that Obergefell leaves open the possibility of (withholding) spousal employment benefits specifically from same-sex couples,” said the brief, written by lawyers associated with Texas Values, a Christian advocacy group based in Austin. “Obergefell does not require a state to treat every single married couple alike for purposes of spousal employment benefits.”
In their appeal, Houston officials said the Texas court ignored the central holding of Obergefell — that the Constitution entitles same-sex couples to marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.
“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,” Houston’s brief said.
Friday’s filing by Texas Values argued that Houston mischaracterized the Texas ruling.
“The court was careful to avoid any statement that endorses discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples or suggests that such discriminatory treatment might remain legal after Obergefell,” the brief said.
Texas Values also argued that the Texas decision is not ripe for high court review because it is not a final order in the case. The Texas court returned the lawsuit to a Harris County district judge to determine if Houston can offer spousal benefits to employees in same-sex marriages.
“The state Supreme Court’s judgment leaves the city’s policy in effect, and it does not prevent the trial court from accepting the city’s constitutional defenses on remand,” the brief said.
The controversy began in 2013, when Houston began offering employee benefits to 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 violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection by treating gay couples as second-class citizens.
The 14th Court of Appeals allowed the city to begin offering spousal benefits to same-sex couples, saying the ruling ended the controversy in the Houston case.
Opponents of gay marriage disagreed, saying the trial court should be allowed to determine Obergefell’s impact on Houston’s benefits. Last June, the Texas Supreme Court agreed.