Texas High Court Weighs Houston Gay Benefits Case

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday  in a case challenging Houston’s decision to offer same-sex spousal benefits to municipal employees that opponents argue are not guaranteed under the 2015 landmark ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

An attorney defending the Houston measure said in opening arguments that while the city is not claiming that spousal benefits are a fundamental right, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges means that all marriages should be treated equally.

“If you extend spousal benefits to opposite sex couples, then under Obergefell you also have to extend it to same-sex [couples.] Not because there’s a fundamental right to employment benefits, or spousal benefits, but because there’s a fundamental right that both of those marriages be treated equally,” said Douglas Alexander on behalf of Houston.

Texas Republicans pushed the 2013 case to be heard by the state’s highest civil court after it declined to hear the case on appeal last year, leaving spousal benefits for gay city workers intact.

In January, the all-Republican court overturned its decision after top Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton filed briefs asking that it re-examine the case.

“There is clearly jurisdiction in this court,” attorney Jonathan Mitchell argued for challengers of the Houston decision. “The meaning and scope of Obergefell remains open to debate.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Wednesday that the city “is confident that the Texas Supreme Court will follow its practice of requiring strict compliance with decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

In legal briefs to the state Supreme Court, the city argued that the decision in Obergefell left “no remaining issues to be decided by any state Supreme Court or any other state official.”

Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a gay marriage ban in 2005, but that has since been upended by the Supreme Court decision a decade later.

Last year, the State Bar of Texas tossed an ethics complaint filed by over 200 attorneys against Paxton regarding a controversial advisory opinion he issued to county clerks and judges to deny marriage licenses to gays in defiance of the 2015 decision.

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