Metro Weekly

Supreme Court allows discrimination against same-sex couples in Houston to continue

Refusal to hear case means LGBTQ city employees can continued to be denied health care and life insurance benefits

Houston City Hall – Photo: Daniel2986, via Wikimedia.

The U.S. Supreme Court will allow a ruling that there is no de facto right to government benefits for legally married same-sex couples in Texas to stand.

SCOTUS rejected an appeal of an earlier Texas Supreme Court decision, which undermined marriage equality by denying same-sex couples the rights and privileges they supposedly were entitled to following the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

The case, Pidgeon v. Turner, involves the question of whether the city of Houston was within its rights to extend health care and life insurance benefits to the spouses of LGBTQ city employees, just as it does for their heterosexual co-workers.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker moved to extend the benefits to couples legally married in other states, after the ruling in U.S. v. Windsor finding that parts of the Defense of Marriage Act denying government recognition of legal same-sex marriages were unconstitutional.

In response to Parker’s move, Houston residents Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks sued Parker and the city of Houston, arguing that extending benefits to same-sex spouses violated the Texas Constitution and Texas Family Code, both of which ban same-sex marriage.

A district court forced the city to stop offering benefits, and eventually decided in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks.

While the city was appealing the decision, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality in the Obergefell decision.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals sent the matter back to the lower court for a decision in line with that ruling.

Meanwhile, anti-LGBTQ activists in the state launched a letter-writing campaign to pressure Texas Supreme Court judges, who are elected officials, to reopen the case and threatened to vote against them if they did not decide against the city and the same-sex couples.

After months of heavy lobbying, the Texas Supreme Court eventually decided that the Pidgeon, Hicks, and other taxpayers could block the city from offering spousal benefits to employees in same-sex marriages.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, issued a statement on the potential fallout that could result from the denial of benefits in Houston, warning that the decision would have a ripple effect.

“With all eyes on tomorrow’s oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop religious exemptions case, the Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples,” Ellis said. “Today’s abnegation by the nation’s highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step.”

The Democratic National Committee also weighed in on the case, vowing to eventually change the law to recognize same-sex spouses’ marriages.

“SCOTUS’s decision in this case upholds discrimination and opens legal avenues for those who want to chip away at LGBTQ equality,” DNC spokesman Joel Kasnetz said in a statement. “Through legislation or through the courts, this disgraceful decision by the Texas Supreme Court must be overturned. Democrats will continue to fight tooth-and-nail for LGBTQ equality in Texas and around the world.”

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