Metro Weekly

3 same-sex couples sue Houston for trying to yank marital benefits

Benefits at risk after conservative residents sued to stop the city from issuing them

Houston City Hall – Photo: Daniel2986, via Wikimedia.

Three city employees and their same-sex spouses are suing the city of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner to preserve health care and other same-sex marital benefits for city employees.

The benefits are at risk of being rescinded after two conservative residents, including a pastor, convinced the Texas Supreme Court to allow them to pursue their own lawsuit asking the city to stop granting benefits to people in same-sex relationships.

“Our clients are angered by the notion that in 2017 their marriages would be deemed inferior to other marriages,” Kenneth Upton, senior counsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas, said in a statement. “Today we are standing up for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Houston city workers and their same-sex spouses against those who seek to demean and diminish them.”

The married couples’ lawsuit also asks the federal court to prevent the city of Houston from forcing employees who have received marital benefits to pay back the city — something opponents of same-sex marriage have demanded ever since the benefits began being issued under former Mayor Annise Parker’s administration.

The lawsuit is similar to one that Lambda Legal filed four years ago when Houston taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks filed suit against the Parker administration, alleging that the mayor had no right to issue benefits to same-sex couples because of Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage. The benefits had been issued in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and finding that same-sex couples should not be subject to disparate treatment.

After the Windsor decision, a state district judge in Texas ruled in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks, but the Texas Court of Appeals reversed that ruling following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges. Lambda then settled and dismissed its original lawsuit asking for the marital benefits to be maintained.

Now, with the Texas Supreme Court paving the way for a lower court to order the city to rescind the benefits, the plaintiffs’ lawyers are asking for an injunction to stop the city from revoking them. They also argue that denying the benefits to only same-sex couples would be discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“Termination of medical coverage and related benefits result in harm that is not merely financial, and cannot be later undone through monetary remedies,” the brief argues. “Absent these benefits, same-sex spouses of married City employees lack both access to much needed medical care and the right to the qualified provider of their choice. Such loss of benefits and loss of choice constitute irreparable harm.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com