Texas Continues to Litigate Marriage Equality Amid Inaction from Federal Courts

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t intervene in Houston case challenging benefits for same-sex spouses of city employees.

An LGBT rights supporter waves a flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
An LGBT rights supporter waves a flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. courtesy Ted Eytan via Flickr

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land more than two years ago, Texas’ anti-LGBT crusaders continue to wage legal war against same-sex unions in state court and on Monday notched what they consider a big win.

The federal courts have so far refused to quash a Texas lawsuit that threatens to strip benefits, such as health and life insurance, away from same-sex spouses of city workers in Houston. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined a request by the city of Houston to intervene in the case and review a perplexing ruling by the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year that found that same-sex spouses of government workers aren’t guaranteed marriage benefits in Texas.

The Monday decision means Texas courts could continue to litigate marriage equality despite a high court ruling that was supposed to settle the issue. Jonathan Saenz, president of the anti-LGBT group Texas Values and a lawyer who helped file the lawsuit, called the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday “an incredible early Christmas present.”

Saenz and a crew of anti-LGBT activists have fought for years to overturn same-sex spousal benefits for Houston city employees. Initially, a state judge ruled in their favor, but in 2015 a state appeals court overturned that ruling due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and struck down gay marriage bans in states like Texas.

At first, the Texas Supreme Court refused to even hear the Houston benefits case in light of the marriage equality ruling, but Saenz and other lawyers appealed and asked the judges to reconsider, arguing that Obergefell didn’t explicitly guarantee “publicly funded benefits” for same-sex spouses. Saenz was soon joined by a chorus of state conservative leaders urging Texas’ highest court to hear the case. A brief filed on behalf of Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton called the Houston lawsuit one of many on the horizon to “examine the scope of the right to same-sex marriage.”

Texas Family Values Rally
Saenz, at right, alongside a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas’ ban on same-sex marriages at a Texas Faith and Freedom Day rally in 2015.  Kelsey Jukam

With pressure from the state’s conservative leaders, the Texas Supreme Court — comprised of nine elected Republicans — backtracked and agreed to hear the appeal. In June, they unanimously ruled that government employees in same-sex marriages aren’t guaranteed spousal benefits, and kicked the case back down to the state court in Houston for more hearings on the matter. By July, Saenz and other lawyers for the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking not only to block Houston from providing those benefits, but also attempting to “claw back” taxpayer money they claim was “unlawfully spent on spousal benefits for homosexual partners of city employees.” (Houston has continued to provide those benefits throughout the case.)

In August, LGBT rights group Lambda Legal tried to stop the case in its tracks, filing a federal lawsuit to protect those benefits on behalf of three gay couples with spouses who work for the city of Houston. Kenneth Upton, the Lambda Legal attorney who filed the lawsuit, told us at the time that he wanted to move the case to the federal bench, calling how Texas courts have handled marriage equality post-Obergefell “an almost Alice in Wonderland kind of scenario.”

Last month, Texas Values and other religious right groups cheered when Houston federal district court Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore tossed Lambda Legal’s case and refused to get involved.

Upton, however, points to Gilmore’s dismissal order in the case as a sign of what the federal courts will do if Texas judges don’t change their tune on marriage equality. While Gilmore says the Houston benefits case is “not yet ripe for review,” she writes that Texas judges are still required to follow the precedent set by Obergefell that makes it “constitutionally impermissible” for a city to deny benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.

“That kind of language just tells me it’s a matter of time before we win the war,” Upton, the LGBT rights advocate and attorney, told the Observer on Monday.

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 5:52 pm CST
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