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Houston Looks To Supreme Court To Resolve Same-Sex Marriage Benefits Fight

Tamir Kalifa
Pamela Holwerds holds up her marriage license following a ceremony that married more than 40 same-sex couples on the south law of the Texas Capitol in Austin on July 4, 2015.

After the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage does not fully address the right to marriage benefits, the city of Houston is now looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

In a petition filed with the high court Friday, the city asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a June 30 decision by the Texas Supreme Court in which the court ruled 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.

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 unanimously ordered a trial court to reconsider the case.

Now, Houston is instead appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing in its petition that the Texas court “disregarded” previous rulings by the high court.

The Houston case emerged amid conservative efforts to re-litigate the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Following that ruling, public employers in Texas, including state agencies and public universities quickly extendedsuch benefits.

But eying a path to narrow the reach of that ruling, two taxpayers — represented by same-sex marriage opponents — suing Houston over its policy took their case to the Texas Supreme Court after losing in a lower state court.

Lawyers for the taxpayers suing Houston have argued that the interpretation of Obergefell is too broad and that the right to marry does not “entail any particular package of tax benefits, employee fringe benefits or testimonial privileges.” (In a separate case against the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, the Texas attorney general’s office actually argued that marriage is a right that comes with benefits the state is entitled to control.)

Lawyers for the city of Houston have argued, in part, that opponents are without a legal avenue to even pursue their claims because the city’s policy is protected under Obergefell, which they pointed out explicitly addressed “marriage-related benefits.

In its June ruling, the Texas Supreme Court noted that Obergefell requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages just as they do in regard to opposite-sex marriages but did not hold that “states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.”

That does not mean Houston can “constitutionally deny benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses,” the court added, but the issue must now be resolved “in light of Obergefell.”

Since then, Houston has continued to provide benefits to all of its married employees. It’s unclear when the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case.

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