Houston Workers Fight to Keep Same-Sex Spousal Benefits

HOUSTON (CN) – Three Houston city employees asked a federal judge to block the city from cutting off benefits to their same-sex partners, an attempt to preempt a state court challenge of the city’s right to provide the benefits.

Despite watershed U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2013 and 2015 that established equal marriage rights for hetero and homosexual couples, the Texas Supreme Court ruled last month that it’s unclear whether states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married couples.

The Texas Supreme Court remanded a state court lawsuit brought by two Houston taxpayers, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, against the city to a trial judge who has already issued two temporary injunctions ordering the city to stop paying same-sex spousal benefits.

Pidgeon and Hicks describe themselves in court filings as devout Christians who, as Houston taxpayers, have been forced to subsidize relationships they consider “immoral and sinful.”

Pidgeon is pastor of the West Houston Christian Center and Hicks is a CPA.

The Houston city employees say in their federal lawsuit that they expect Harris County Judge Lisa Millard – who was re-elected to the bench after running unopposed in the 2014 Republican primary – to again side with Pidgeon and Hicks and grant them a third temporary injunction ordering Houston to cut off and claw back their spousal benefits.

The employees sued Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Pidgeon and Hicks on Thursday in Houston federal court.

Pidgeon and Hicks’ attorney Jared Woodfill did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the lawsuit. Woodfill was chairman of Harris County’s Republican Party from 2002 to 2014. Houston is Harris County’s seat.

Lead plaintiff Noel Freeman is a manager in Houston’s Public Works and Engineering Department and has worked for the city for nearly 13 years, according to the complaint.

He says he married his longtime partner and co-plaintiff Bradley Pritchett in Washington, D.C. in 2010.

Houston began offering spousal benefits to same-sex couples in November 2013 at the behest of then-Mayor Annise Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor.

“Noel enrolled Brad for spousal benefits, including healthcare coverage, within about 45 minutes of learning about the change in the City of Houston’s eligibility policy. Up to that time, for the entire twelve years they had been together, Brad had not had healthcare coverage—a fact that had always loomed over them like a dark cloud,” the lawsuit states.

Pritchett says in the lawsuit he immediately used his new health benefits to get new glasses and treat his vertigo caused by hearing loss in his right ear.

“Although Brad is employed, he only had healthcare benefits through his employer beginning in 2015. Brad now receives medical and dental health insurance through his employer. Brad remains enrolled for vision care benefits with the City of Houston,” the complaint states.

The Houston employees are represented by Lambda Legal, an LGBT-advocacy law firm, and by attorneys with Morgan, Lewis and Bockius.

Lambda Legal attorney Jack Upton told Houston’s NPR affiliate that Texas and other Republican-controlled states are looking for ways to get around the Supreme Court decisions establishing the marriage rights of homosexual couples.

The Texas Supreme Court initially declined to get involved in the litigation involving Pidgeon and Hicks, effectively upholding a lower court ruling that authorized Houston to continue providing same-sex spousal benefits to its employees.

But it took up the case at the request of Texas Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The trio claim in an amicus brief filed last October that the Supreme Court rulings in favor of gay marriage do “not bind state courts to resolve all other claims in favor of the right to same-sex marriage” and that Texas law “prohibits the State or any political subdivision from giving effect to a ‘right or claim to any legal protection, benefit, or responsibility asserted as a result of’ any same-sex union.”

Upton told NPR the Houston employees’ lawsuit is aimed at eliminating attempts by states to undercut Supreme Court precedent.

“That’s what this lawsuit is attempting to do. It’s saying, look, this ultimately is a matter of federal law. Let’s get this resolved once and for all,” he said.

Yadira Estrada, a Houston police sergeant and Ronald Reeser, a city IT administrator, along with their spouses, joined Freeman and Pritchett as plaintiffs.

They seek declarations that denying spousal benefits to the same-sex spouses of Houston employees would violate their Fifth and 14th Amendment due process and equal protection rights, and that Texas laws confining marital recognition to heterosexual couples are unconstitutional.

They also seek a preliminary injunction to stop Houston from cutting off their spousal benefits, or trying to recover the benefits it has already paid them.

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