Finding no established right to spousal benefits in same-sex marriages, a unanimous Texas Supreme Court on Friday revived a lawsuit challenging the city of Houston’s insurance plans for married gay employees.
According to the all-Republican Texas court, the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the right to same-sex marriage didn’t decide all marriage-related matters, leaving room for state courts to explore the decision’s “reach and ramifications.”
Supporters of same-sex marriage reacted with dismay and anger, arguing that the Texas court ignored clear and undeniable instructions from the nation’s highest court, which said same-sex couples cannot be denied “the constellation of benefits that the states have linked to marriage.”
In Friday’s ruling, however, the Texas justices adopted a narrow reading of the high court’s instructions.
“The Supreme Court held … that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,” Justice Jeff Boyd wrote for the court.
Neel Lane, a Dallas lawyer who challenged the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2013, said the Texas judges blatantly disregarded U.S. Supreme Court rulings that require all marriages to be treated equally — including a decision earlier this week admonishing Arkansas for not allowing same-sex spouses to be listed on their children’s birth certificates.
“The (U.S.) court majority intended it to be a watershed opinion that would clear all barriers to equality for same-sex couples. That’s just clear from the language of the opinion,” Lane said.
Equality Texas, a gay rights advocacy group, said the Texas Supreme Court decision “clings to unconstitutional notions of separate but equal.”
Other advocates called it an attack on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.
“The Texas Supreme Court’s decision this morning is a warning shot to all LGBTQ Americans that the war on marriage equality is ever-evolving, and anti-LGBTQ activists will do anything possible to discriminate against our families,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy group GLAAD.
But Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and a lawyer for two taxpayers who challenged Houston’s same-sex benefits, called the ruling “a huge win for Houston taxpayers and for those who support the state’s marriage laws.”
“We are not aware of any other case like this in the nation, which is why today’s action by the Supreme Court and defeat for the city of Houston is highly significant,” Saenz said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also praised the ruling, saying it “recognized that Texas law is still important when it comes to marriage.”
“While the U.S. Supreme Court declared a right to same-sex marriage, that ruling did not resolve all legal issues related to marriage,” Paxton said.
Friday’s ruling by the state’s highest civil court returns the case to a Harris County district court to determine if the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges applies to spousal benefits provided by the city of Houston.
“We decline to instruct the trial court how to construe Obergefell on remand,” Boyd wrote.
Houston officials said they were reviewing the decision and considering options, which could include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, spousal benefits will continue to be offered “all eligible employees,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
“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,” said Turner, a Democrat and former state House representative.
The case arose out of then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s 2013 decision to grant benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees who had legally married in other states.
A lawsuit encouraged by leading social conservatives in Houston prompted a state district judge to issue an injunction barring Houston from extending the benefits, saying Parker violated a state law and an amendment to the Texas Constitution that prohibited same-sex marriage or any action recognizing a same-sex union.
While an appeal from Houston was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its June 2015 opinion that overturned state bans on gay marriage, prompting the appeals court to lift the injunction.
Two taxpayers, including Rev. Jack Pidgeon of the West Houston Christian Center, next turned to the Texas Supreme Court, which initially rejected their appeal in September, with only one member, Justice John Devine, dissenting.
A campaign by social and religious conservatives produced a barrage of emails asking the eight other justices to reconsider or risk a backlash in the next GOP primary.
Leading Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Paxton — joined the call, and in January the court issued a rarely granted motion to rehear the case, leading to Friday’s decision.