The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up the appeal of a Texas Supreme Court ruling against the rights of married same-sex couples. The Texas high court had ruled that “the right to a marriage license did not entitle same-sex couples to spousal benefits under employee insurance plans.”
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Denying the city of Houston’s request, the U.S. Supreme Court will not review a June decision by the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that the landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage does not fully address the right to marriage benefits.
The high court on Monday announced it would not take up the case — which centers on Houston’s policy to provide spouses of gay and lesbian employees the same government-subsidized marriage benefits it provides to opposite-sex spouses — just months after the city of Houston filed its appeal, arguing the state court’s June decision “disregarded” precedent.
In that decision, the Texas Supreme Court threw out a lower court ruling that said spouses of gay and lesbian public employees are entitled to government-subsidized marriage benefits, and it unanimously ordered a trial court to reconsider the case. The ruling found that there’s still room for state courts to explore “the reach and ramifications” of marriage-related issues that resulted from the legalization of same-sex marriage.
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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.