In the unanimous opinion, the state’s high court reversed a lower court’s ruling in Pidgeon v. Houston that public employers cannot deny same-sex spousal benefits to their employees.
The case pitted two Houston taxpayers, represented by same-sex marriage opponents, against the city of Houston.
Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd, writing for the Texas Supreme Court, said in the opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, recognizing same-sex marriage, did not resolve whether the Constitution requires states or cities to provide tax-funded spousal benefits to those couples.
“The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,” Boyd wrote.
However, that does not mean that it is necessarily constitutional to deny benefits to public employees’ same-sex spouses either, Boyd added.
Houston began offering spousal benefits to same-sex couples in November 2013 at the direction of then-Mayor Annise Parker, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s provision defining the terms “marriage” and “spouse” as applying only to heterosexual couples violates basic due process and equal protection rights.
Parker was the city’s first openly gay mayor.
A month later, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, described in their lawsuit as “Houston taxpayers and qualified voters,” sued the city and the mayor, contending that Houston was expending “significant public funds on an illegal activity” and 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 and Hicks originally argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against federal DOMA did not extend to Texas’ or Houston’s DOMAs.
The trial court granted Pidgeon’s request for a temporary injunction, which prohibited the city from providing benefits to same-sex couples.
At the same time, however, courts across the country were hearing other lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of various state DOMAs, five of which the Supreme Court took up in Obergefell.
After the high court’s ruling in that case that state DOMAs violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, a Texas court of appeals reversed the injunction awarded to Pidgeon.
In its 2015 opinion, the state appeals court cited Obergefell’s ruling that “there is no lawful basis” for a state to refuse to recognize a legal same-sex marriage.
The Texas Supreme Court originally declined to hear the case, but reconsidered at the urging of Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The three Republican leaders filed an amicus brief in October, writing that the federal court’s ruling obligating the states to recognize same-sex marriages does not automatically dictate a case like Pigeon, which “which raises a related but different constitutional question.”
“While the judgment in Obergefell is authoritative, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy’s lengthy opinion explaining that judgment is not an addendum to the federal constitution and should not be treated by state courts as if every word of it is the preemptive law of the United States,” Abbott, Patrick and Paxton said in the brief.
The Texas Supreme Court, unlike in many other states, is elected, and Republican incumbents sometimes face primary challenges.
In the decision Friday, the state’s high court declined to make a ruling on the merits of the case, “before the parties have had a full opportunity to make their case.”
“Pidgeon and the Mayor, like many other litigants throughout the country, must now assist the courts in fully exploring Obergefell’s reach and ramifications, and are entitled to the opportunity to do so,” Boyd wrote.
The Texas Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s judgment and vacated the trial court’s temporary injunction order, remanding the case for further proceedings.
Houston public employees will continue to get benefits while the case is argued, but the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jared Woodfill, told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that he intends to seek another injunction to prevent the city from doing providing the benefits.
Houston could appeal the decision directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in a statement Friday, the city’s current mayor, Sylvester Turner, said the city is reviewing its options and hasn’t yet made any decisions as to how to proceed.
“The City of Houston will continue to be an inclusive city that respects the legal marriages of all employees,” Turner said. “Marriage equality is the law of the land, and everyone is entitled to the full benefits of marriage, regardless of the gender of their spouse.”
In a statement Friday, the state’s attorney general applauded the Texas Supreme Court’s decision to allow the case to move forward.
“I’m extremely pleased that the Texas Supreme Court recognized that Texas law is still important when it comes to marriage,” Paxton said. “While the U.S. Supreme Court declared a right to same-sex marriage, that ruling did not resolve all legal issues related to marriage.”
Equality Texas spokesperson DeAnne Cueller said in a statement that by “punting” the case back to the lower court, the Texas Supreme Court is undermining the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, and “clings to unconstitutional notions of ‘separate but equal.’”
The LGBTQ advocacy group is urging Houston to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Extreme partisan politics has no place at the Texas Supreme Court and this decision is sure to damage the Texas brand and further tarnish the reputation of this state as being unwelcome and hostile to LGBTQ Texans,” Cueller said.