Couples embrace at the conclusion of the “Big Gay Wedding” ceremony on the south lawn of the Texas Capitol on July 4 after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June. Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune
The Texas Supreme Court on Friday threw out a lower court ruling that favored of government-subsidized same-sex marriage benefits and sent the Houston case back to trial court for reconsideration.
The case was part of Texas Republicans’ ongoing fight against the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and led to the enactment of benefits policies for married same-sex couples.
At the center of the Houston case is whether that ruling — known as Obergefell v. Hodges — requires city and other governmental agencies to extend those taxpayer-subsidized benefits to same-sex spouses of government employees. Following that ruling, public employers in Texas, including state agencies and public universities — quickly extended such benefits.
But in an attempt to re-litigate the high court’s decision, two taxpayers — represented by same-sex marriage opponents — are suing Houston over its policy.
They’ve 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 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.
During a March hearing, Douglas Alexander, the lawyer who defended Houston’s benefits policy, told the court that the case was moot under Obergefell’s guarantee that all marriages be equally regarded.
Jonathan Mitchell, the former solicitor general for the state and the lawyer representing opponents of the Houston policy, argued that marriage benefits are not a fundamental right and that Obergefell did not resolve questions surrounding such policies..
But throughout the hearing, the justices instead focused on jurisdiction and standing.
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, which upheld benefits for same-sex couples, 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.