HOUSTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to take up Houston’s request for clarity on whether the legalization of same-sex marriage means the city must provide taxpayer-funded benefits to the spouses of its homosexual employees.
As of now, Houston can continue to provide the benefits, unless the trial court blocks them again. Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner asked the Supreme Court in September to hear the case after the Texas Supreme Court ruled in June that the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges did not resolve whether the Constitution requires states or cities to give spousal benefits to same-sex couples.
Gay rights groups on Monday condemned the Supreme Court for denying Houston’s petition even as the high court prepares to hear arguments Tuesday in another case that could have major ramifications in the nation’s culture wars.
The Supreme Court can establish in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission whether the First Amendment’s religious freedom and free speech protections give business owners the right to deny service to homosexual couples.
“The Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand, which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples. Today’s abnegation by the nation’s highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, a media watchdog, said in a statement Monday. GLAAD was formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Houston began offering same-sex spousal benefits in November 2013 under the direction of then-Mayor Annise Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor.
A month later, two Houston taxpayers, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, sued the city and the mayor, claiming Houston was injuring them because they are “devout Christians who have been compelled by the mayor’s unlawful edict to subsidize homosexual relationships that they regard as immoral and sinful.”
Pidgeon is pastor of the West Houston Christian Center; Hicks is a CPA.
The city has continued to pay the benefits as the case winds its way through the courts.
But the challengers’ attorney, Jared Woodfill, likes their chances because the case is going back to state court judge Lisa Millard, who has already issued two temporary injunctions ordering the city to stop paying the benefits.
“The U.S. Supreme court could have taken the case and used it to further expand Obergefell. They chose not to. It’s confirmation that the Texas Supreme Court got it right,” Woodfill told the Associated Press. He was chairman of the Harris County Republican Party from 2002 to 2014. Houston is Harris County’s seat.
Three Houston city employees asked a federal judge in August to block the city from cutting off benefits to their same-sex partners, or trying to recover benefits it already has paid, an attempt to pre-empt Hicks’ and Pidgeon’s lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the employees’ lawsuit on Nov. 7, finding they lack standing because the city had not withdrawn their spouses’ benefits.
But Gilmore noted that the Obergefell ruling, in which the Supreme Court declared that gay and lesbian married couples are entitled to the “constellation of benefits that the states have linked to marriage,” came down after Millard blocked Houston’s spousal benefit payments with injunctions in December 2013 and November 2014.
“In light of this precedent, which the Texas trial court is required to follow, it seems constitutionally impermissible for the city to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of its employees,” Gilmore wrote.
The Texas Supreme Court, whose nine justices are all Republicans and must defend their seats in statewide partisan elections, took up the case at the request of the state’s Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The trio claimed in an amicus brief in October 2016 that Texas law bars the state and any of its political subdivisions from recognizing any benefits or legal protections claimed as a result of a same-sex union.
Paxton said in a statement Monday: “We’re pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the right to a marriage license does not entitle same-sex couples to employee benefits at the expense of Texas taxpayers. The city of Houston’s former mayor illegally extended those benefits while the traditional, Texas definition of marriage was still in full force.”