In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s 2015 same-sex marriage ruling, Texas courts are wrestling with how to handle spousal benefits under the Texas Constitution and state law.
The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier this month on the legality of same-sex spousal benefits offered by the City of Houston in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
In 2013 Houston Mayor Annise Parker instructed city staff to begin paying governmental benefits to employees in same-sex unions.
That decision didn’t sit well with two Houston taxpayers. Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks filed suit against the City of Houston challenging the payments. In their suit, the citizens argued that Parker’s actions were illegal under the Texas Constitution and state law.
Though Pidgeon and Hicks were able to secure an injunction preventing the City of Houston from disbursing those benefits, that injunction was dissolved in the wake of the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges.
The taxpayers are currently disputing the removal of the injunction and are seeking a Texas Supreme Court ruling on the matter.
In 2005 Texas voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Texas Constitution declaring marriage “shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman” and the state “may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”
After the Texas Supreme Court initially declined to hear Pidgeon and Hicks’ case, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz, who is representing them in the case, joined with many of the state’s conservative leaders to file briefs asking the Court to reconsider.
The briefs have been backed by some of the heaviest hitters in Austin, including Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick, who jointly filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the challenge last year. The court eventually relented, and agreed to hear oral arguments in the case this month.
The taxpayer’s’ argument is that while the Supreme Court compelled state governments to recognize same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the ruling does nothing to compel the state to offer spousal benefits for same-sex couples.
“Obergefell v. Hodges is not retroactive, and it does not overturn the violation of state law that occurred when the Mayor of Houston decided to provide employee benefits to same-sex couples prior to the decision,” says Saenz.
Saenz says that he hopes not only to get a win for the taxpayers, but more importantly to clarify the law and prevent the City of Houston from undermining it.
“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue of marriage licenses; there is no ruling from the High Court that taxpayers must subsidize benefits requests from any two persons,” Saenz continued.
The case will not only set the standard for where tax dollars do and do not go, but could also set the standard for how other states are to interpret and enforce the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling.