In what will be seen by many as a victory for the Christian right and a blow to the LGBTQ community, the U.S. Supreme Court let a challenge go forward this week to Houston’s practice of providing benefits such as health insurance to the same-sex spouses of city employees, leaving intact a Texas Supreme Court decision that calls the policy into question. The order does not force the city to change its policy or preclude the nation’s highest court from taking up the dispute later.
The Houston case began in 2013 when Jack Pidgeon, a local Christian pastor, and Larry Hicks, an accountant, sued the city after Annise Parker, a Democrat who was Houston’s first openly gay mayor, gave municipal spousal benefits such as health insurance and life insurance to same-sex married couples.
Pidgeon and Hicks, backed by state Republican leaders, argued that providing benefits violated the Texas constitution and state and local laws against same-sex marriage. A state trial court initially sided with them, but after the 2015 Obergefell decision which legalized same sex marriage federally, an appeals court reversed that ruling.
Lawyers for Pidgeon and Hicks then argued to the state Supreme Court that the Obergefell ruling should be interpreted narrowly and did not require states to give taxpayer subsidies to same-sex couples any more than the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion required states to subsidize abortions.
In June, the Texas Supreme Court threw out the ruling favoring Houston, siding with Pidgeon and Hicks and agreeing that the Obergefell decision “did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,” and remanded the case back to the trial court to allow them to make their arguments again. Pidgeon and Hicks went even further in their argument, arguing that same sex couples do not have a “fundamental right” to receive government-subsidized spousal benefits and that it is “perfectly constitutional” to extend benefits to some married couples and deny them to others.
The current Houston Mayor, democrat Sylvester Turner, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in June, saying the dispute had already been settled because the Obergefell ruling extended to married same-sex couples the “constellation of benefits that the states have linked to marriage.” (1)
The case will now proceed in a Texas state court, which could decide to stop the benefits offered by the fourth most populous U.S. city to same sex couples. Such a ruling again could be appealed to the nation’s top court. In the meantime, Houston and other municipalities in Texas, including Dallas and Austin, intend to provide the same benefits to same-sex couples that they provide to heterosexual couples until ordered to do otherwise by the Courts.