In a Texas Supreme Court decision delivered on June 30, 2017, the state’s highest civil court narrowly applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling from 2015 that legalized gay marriage in the United States. The Texas Supreme Court, addressing an interlocutory appeal out of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston, did not acknowledge outright that same-sex spouses of employees of the City of Houston are entitled to the same tax-funded employment benefits that are offered to opposite-sex spouses of City employees. However, the Texas Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to examine the legal issue “in light of” the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The case is Pidgeon v. Turner.
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Same-Sex Couples are entitled to Same Rights and Employment Benefits as Opposite-Sex Couples
In 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court held that same-sex couples cannot be denied civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the denial of marriage equality to same-sex couples is a violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court also recognized that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and constellation of benefits … linked to marriage as opposite-sex couples.
City of Houston Challenged in Court over Employment Benefits
In Pidgeon v. Turner, the plaintiffs challenged the City of Houston’s policy of offering the same employment benefits to same-sex spouses of employees that were offered to opposite-sex spouses. The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction barring the Mayor of Houston from providing employment benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees. The Mayor filed an interlocutory appeal. After Obergefell v. Hodges was decided, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston reversed the trial court’s temporary injunction. The plaintiffs then sought review from the Texas Supreme Court.
Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, vacated the trial court’s orders, and remanded the case to the trial court for a new examination of the legal issues consistent with the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion and judgment.
Texas Supreme Court Challenged the Trial Court to Consider U. S. Supreme Court’s Finding
In its opinion, the Texas Supreme Court applied the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges narrowly. Even though the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the Mayor that the trial court must consider Obergefell v. Hodges in its constitutional analysis of the provision of employment benefits to same-sex spouses, the Texas Supreme Court did not find Obergefell to be controlling. Instead, the court remanded the case to the trial court to examine the legal issue merely “in light of” Obergefell.
The Texas Supreme Court in Pidgeon v. Turner also agreed with the plaintiffs that Obergefell did not specifically address the issue of tax-funded employment benefits to same-sex spouses. The Texas Supreme Court found that Obergefell only “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.”
The Texas Supreme Court did not find that the City’s denial of employment benefits to same-sex spouses would be unconstitutional under Obergefell, as many would contend. Instead, in punting the case back to the trial court, the court is giving the parties a chance to “assist the courts in fully exploring Obergefell’s reach and ramifications.” However, it would appear that the City’s provision of employment benefits to same-sex spouses is a fixed star in Obergefell’s “constellation of benefits” that cannot be denied to married same-sex couples if the same employment benefits are provided to married opposite-sex couples.
Learn more about Eligibility for Employment Benefits in Texas
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