Houston looks to Supreme Court to resolve same-sex marriage benefits fight

FILE - In this April 28, 2015, file photo, demonstrators stand in front of a rainbow flag of the Supreme Court in Washington, as the court was set to hear historic arguments in cases that could make same-sex marriage the law of the land. Gay and lesbian couples could face legal chaos if the Supreme Court rules against same-sex marriage in the next few weeks. Same-sex weddings could come to a halt in many states, depending on a confusing mix of lower-court decisions and the sometimes-contradictory views of state and local officials. Among the 36 states in which same-sex couples can now marry are 20 in which federal judges invoked the Constitution to strike down marriage bans. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

HOUSTON, Texas (Texas Tribune) — 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 it 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 extended marriage benefits.

But eying a path to narrow the reach of that ruling, two taxpayers — represented by same-sex marriage opponents — are suing Houston over its policy and 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 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/09/18/houston-looks-supreme-court-resolve-same-sex-marriage-benefits-fight/.

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