The Austin Chronicle

Meanwhile, in Houston

Same-sex marriage benefits case heats up with new lawsuit

By Sarah Marloff, August 25, 2017, News

On Aug. 10, on behalf of three married couples, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Houston and its Mayor Sylvester Turner in an effort to save same-sex spousal benefits for city employees. This comes less than two months after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages are not entitled to spousal benefits.

The case has been ongoing since 2013, when Annise Parker, the city's mayor at the time, began offering insurance benefits to all legally married couples, including LGBTQ folks – almost two years before the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Oberge­fell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage. Parker's decision was challenged in court and blocked by a temporary injunction. But SCOTUS ruled on marriage equality before a ruling was reached, and the court of appeals decided to reverse the injunction.

Two unhappy Houston taxpayers – Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks – petitioned the state's highest court to review the case ("Marriage Equality Suffers Blow," July 7). Their request was originally denied, but with the help of state leaders Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who applied pressure on the court by filing numerous amicus briefs, the court eventually agreed to hear oral arguments against the "taxpayer-funded benefits" Houston offers to same-sex spouses.

The court's June 30 ruling sent the case back to a county court for reconsideration. Cohn said the ACLU believes "this is squarely resolved under Obergefell. [SCOTX] declined to say that, but they did not rule definitively that employment benefits were not protected under the scope of Obergefell." Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan agreed, and said the ruling "cannot affect Austin."

After Lambda filed its lawsuit, Sylvester's communications director Alan Bernstein told the Chron­icle that despite being sued, "Houston understands that an important part of compensation to its employees is health coverage benefits." He added that both the city and state offer employee coverage for all married couples "without regard to sex" and will continue to do so. Regarding the SCOTX ruling, he says the city is still weighing its legal options.

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