The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a Texas ruling that said the right to a marriage license did not entitle same-sex couples to spousal benefits under employee insurance plans.
The city of Houston had asked the high court to overturn last June’s Texas Supreme Court decision, which determined that all marriage-related matters were not decided when the U.S. Supreme Court established a right to same-sex unions in 2015, leaving room for state courts to explore the limits of gay marriage.
The federal court’s decision, issued without comment, allowed the Texas ruling to stand.
yers for Houston had argued that the Texas ruling was wrong, short-sighted and invited endless rounds of litigation from opponents determined to limit the impact of 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,” the city’s lawyers told the court.
Opponents of gay marriage had urged the high court to reject Houston’s appeal, arguing that it did not open the door to discrimination, as city officials had claimed.
The Texas court merely said that the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, while acknowledging the right of same-sex couples to marry, did not answer or resolve all marriage-related questions, including whether governments must provide the same benefits to same-sex couples that are provided to opposite-sex couples, they argued.
Based on a lawsuit that was all but dead a year ago, the Texas case was a surprising addition to the fight over gay marriage.
The controversy began in 2013, when Houston under then-Mayor Annise Parker began offering employee benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees who had been legally married in other states.
Opponents of gay marriage sued, prompting a district judge to block the benefits, ruling that they violated a state law and constitutional amendment barring government recognition of same-sex marriages. While Houston’s appeal was pending, however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state bans on gay marriage in June 2015, ruling that they violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection by treating gay couples as second-class citizens.
Saying the ruling ended the controversy in the Houston case, the 14th Court of Appeals allowed the city to begin offering spousal benefits to same-sex couples.
The Texas Supreme Court apparently agreed, rejecting the case in September 2016.
But opponents of gay marriage launched a pressure campaign to get the all-Republican court to reconsider. A barrage of emails warned the nine judges of retribution in the GOP primaries, and Republican leaders — including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton — argued that the case offered an opportunity to limit the impact of the high court’s ruling on gay marriage.
In a rare reversal, the state Supreme Court relented, accepting the case and eventually ruling that there is no established right to spousal benefits in same-sex marriages. The ruling returned the lawsuit to a Houston district court to determine if the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage ruling applies to spousal benefits provided by the city of Houston.
“What an incredible early Christmas present from the U. S. Supreme Court,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values and a lawyer who represents the Houston taxpayers who sued to challenge the same-sex benefits.
“Mayor Annise Parker defied the law by providing spousal benefits to same-sex couples at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in Texas, and we intend hold the city accountable for Parker’s lawless actions and her unauthorized expenditures of taxpayer money,” Saenz said.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy organization GLAAD, predicted that Monday’s action will open the door to “an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step.”
“The Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples,” Ellis said.