The state Supreme Court’s refusal to extend state spousal benefits to same-sex couples is an insidious attempt to defy Obergefell v. Hodges.
by Mark Joseph Stern
(Slate) – On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not clearly require states to extend spousal benefits to same-sex couples. The unanimous decision interprets the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges narrowly, questioning whether it compels states to treat same-sex couples equally to opposite-sex couples in any context outside of marriage licensing. Arkansas recently raised this argument at the United States Supreme Court and lost. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision may eventually meet the same fate.
Friday’s decision in Pidgeon v. Turner revolves around spousal benefits for government workers. Texas law prohibits same-sex couples from receiving such benefits. After the Supreme Court struck down the federal same-sex marriage ban in 2013, the Houston city attorney advised then-Mayor Annise Parker that this prohibition ran afoul of the Constitution. While the Texas law remains on the books, Parker mandated that it no longer be enforced in Houston, ordering the city to “extend benefits” to government employees’ same-sex spouses who’d been legally married elsewhere. (At this point, Texas’ same-sex marriage ban had not yet been struck down.) Two taxpayers, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, challenged Parker’s directive shortly thereafter, arguing that by granting benefits to same-sex couples, Houston was “expending significant public funds on an illegal activity.” (When Parker left office, current Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stepped in as the defendant.)
A state trial court agreed and blocked the new policy. While the city appealed that decision, the Supreme Court issued Obergefell in June 2015, invalidating state-level same-sex marriage bans. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applied Obergefell to Texas several days later in a case called De Leon v. Abbott, striking down the state’s bar on same-sex marriage. In light of these decisions, a state appeals court reversed the block on same-sex benefits in Houston and sent the case back down to the trial court “for proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.” Pidgeon and Hicks appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which initially refused to take the case. After a group of high-profile Republicans urged the justices to reconsider, however, the court reversed course and heard arguments in March. (The justices on the Texas Supreme Court are elected and occasionally face primary challenges from the right.)