The Texas Supreme Court ruled – unanimously – on Friday that gay married couples have no right to government-provided spousal benefits, the Austin Statesman reports:
The 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the right to same-sex marriage did not decide all marriage-related matters, leaving room for state courts to explore the decision’s “reach and ramifications,” the all-Republican Texas court said.
Supporters of gay marriage have vowed to appeal such a ruling to the federal courts, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court clearly stated that all marriages must be treated equally.
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 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.
Read the ruling.
Buzzfeed’s Dominic Holden has a more nuanced reading:
The lawsuit, filed by two activists in 2013, attempts to repeal benefits for employees at the City of Houston who are married to a same-sex partner. But Friday’s ruling did not decide whether the couples should or should not get those employment benefits. Nor did the Texas court declare that the US Supreme Court’s marriage decision should be ignored in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case.
Rather, the 24-page opinion says that the activists behind the lawsuit can continue to help “the courts in fully exploring Obergefell’s reach and ramifications” by arguing their case in a lower court in the context of the Obergefell ruling.
Lawyers for the activists characterized Friday’s decision as a triumph for their Constitutional right to be free from federal overreach.
“This is a huge win for those who believe in upholding the Tenth Amendment and standing for religious liberty,” Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the men, said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “The Texas Supreme Court made it clear that a federal decision is not binding on the state trial court.”
But some LGBT activists dispute the notion that this ruling is inherently consequential. Houston employees are continuing to obtain these benefits, they note. But by keeping the case alive, they say, Texas state court prolongs questions over whether same-sex couples can truly enjoy equal protection under the law.
The decision by the Texas Supreme Court to take up the case was regarded as an unusual move because it had previously declined to take it up last year. That allowed a lower court decision to stand.
But the state’s highest civil court reversed course in January after receiving an outpouring of letters opposing the decision. They also faced pressure from Texas GOP leadership — spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrickand Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who asked the court to clarify that Obergefell does not include a “command” to public employers regarding employee benefits.
That request to the court came more than a year after state agencies moved to extend benefits to spouses of married gay and lesbian employees just days after the high court’s ruling. As of Aug. 31, 584 same-sex spouses had enrolled in insurance plans — including health, dental or life insurance — subsidized by the state, according to a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System, which oversees benefits for state employees.
Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD – the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, released the following statement after the Texas Supreme Court issued a decision for the Pidgeon v. Turner court case this morning which could now begin the process to undercut marriage equality by erasing spousal benefits, including health care benefits, for legally married LGBTQ couples in the state of Texas. The Court ruled that there is not a de facto right to government benefits for married gay and lesbian couples.
“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. In the age of the Trump Administration, which continues to systematically erase LGBTQ Americans from the fabric of this nation, the LGBTQ community and our allies must remain visible and push back harder than ever against attacks on acceptance.”
The Texas Supreme Court today defied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges which ushered in the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide, saying it leaves open questions whether Texas municipalities must extend access to spousal benefits including health insurance to the legal same-sex spouses of municipal employees in the same way it does for other married employees. The ruling revives a case that was dead and sends it back to the trial court to give the parties another chance to attack the marriage of same-sex couples.
Today’s ruling, in the case Pidgeon v. Turner, also flies in the face of the Supreme Court summary reversal on Monday of an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling, in Pavan v. Smith, stating explicitly that states may not treat same-sex married couples differently than other married couples. Pidgeon v. Turner, originally filed in late 2013 as Pidgeon v. Parker, challenged then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s announcement that the city would begin offering health insurance and other benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees.
In its ruling, the Texas Supreme Court writes: “But Obergefell is not the end either. Already, the Supreme Court has taken one opportunity to address Obergefell’s impact on an issue it did not address in Obergefell, and there will undoubtedly be others.” Based on this clearly erroneous reading of both Obergefell and Pavan, the Texas Court continued, “Pidgeon and the Mayor, like many other litigants throughout the country, must now assist the courts in fully exploring Obergefell’s reach and ramifications, and are entitled to the opportunity to do so.”
“This absurd contortion of the Obergefell ruling defies all logic and reason, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s explicit ruling on Monday that marriage is marriage and equal is equal. We will take steps to protect these families,” said Kenneth D. Upton, Jr., Senior Counsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas. “The Court was very clear in the majority opinion about the scope of what marriage entails.”
“This decision is political and is an example of why elected judges are bad for LGBT people and bad for judicial independence,” added Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Director at Lambda Legal.
As detailed in Obergefell:
“Indeed, while the States are in general free to vary the benefits they confer on all married couples, they have throughout our history made marriage the basis for an expanding list of governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities. These aspects of marital status include: taxation; inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession; spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decisionmaking authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers’ compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rules…The States have contributed to the fundamental character of the marriage right by placing that institution at the center of so many facets of the legal and social order. There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle. Yet by virtue of their exclusion from that institution, same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.”
On Monday the Court reiterated the breadth of the Obergefell ruling:
“As we explained [in Obergefell], a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’ Indeed, in listing those terms and conditions — the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities’ to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access — we expressly identified ‘birth and death certificates.’ That was no accident…”
“Similarly the original decision in Obergefell listed health insurance,” Upton added.
Upton said Lambda Legal plans to work with City of Houston attorneys on next steps.
“This naked attempt to undermine Obergefell and relegate married lesbian, gay, and bisexual public employees to second-class status cannot be allowed to stand,” Upton said.