Court lets stand Texas ruling potentially blocking gay spousal benefits

(Photo/Matt Wade/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Texas case involving a city that extended benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.

The court unanimously chose not to reconsider Houston’s appeal of a Texas Supreme Court decision, allowing a lawsuit to proceed that seeks to block the city from providing spousal benefits to married same-sex municipal employees.

Jack Pidgeon, pastor of West Houston Christian Center, and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city four years ago after former Mayor Annise Parker extended employee benefits to same-sex spouses of city workers.

Pidgeon and Hicks asserted the city was spending “significant public funds on an illegal activity.” At the time, the Texas Family Code explicitly barred “any marriage between persons of the same sex,” and the Texas Constitution included an amendment approved in 2005 that specifies marriage in the state “shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.”

A trial court denied pleas by the city and its mayor and issued a temporary injunction prohibiting them from furnishing the benefits, but while the case was working its way through the appeals process, the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage.

“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,” attorneys for city of Houston argued.

The court of appeals reversed the temporary injunction. However, the Texas Supreme Court decided the Obergefell v. Hodges did not address the specific issues addressed in the Houston matter, reversed the appeal court’s judgment and sent the case back to trial court.

Lawsuit returns to state level

Attorney Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, who represented Pidgeon and Hicks, called the U.S. Supreme Court’s action “an incredible early Christmas present” for Texans.

“This victory means our lawsuit can now move forward at the state level, where the case belongs. … Our one-of-a-kind case may be America’s last hope to keep the egregious Obergefell same-sex marriage ruling from being greatly expanded,” he said.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review the Texas case.

“We’re pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the right to a marriage license does not entitle same-sex couples to employee benefits at the expense of Texas taxpayers,” Paxton said. “The city of Houston’s former mayor illegally extended those benefits while the traditional Texas definition of marriage was still in full force.”

While the legal outcome of the Houston case awaits a state trial court decision, Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, expressed concern about the political impact the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case will have—particularly in Texas.

“Politicians who are openly hostile to treating everyone equally under the law will now redouble their efforts to render the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage ruling almost meaningless for same-sex couples,” she said.

“After turning bathrooms into a political battleground, they will now wage a mean-spirited, scorched-earth campaign to rob families they don’t like of the security that everyone else gets from marriage. This just condemns us to a renewed culture war battle over marriage and equality and makes Texas look out of step with the rest of the country.”

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