TX Supreme Court: No Government Benefits To Married LGBTQ Couples
The Texas Supreme Court just ruled that married same-sex couples do not enjoy the right to the same government-related benefits married opposite-sex couples have access to. The decision comes mere days after the United States Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that treated same-sex couples differently in having both names on their children’s birth certificates.
A unanimous Texas Supreme Court concluded Friday that there is no established right to government-provided spousal benefits in same-sex marriages.
The 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the right to same-sex marriage did not decide all marriage-related matters, leaving room for state courts to explore the decision’s “reach and ramifications,” the all-Republican Texas court said.
The case arose out of then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s 2013 decision to grant benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees who had married in other states.
A lawsuit encouraged by leading social conservatives in Houston prompted a state district judge to issue an injunction barring Houston from extending the benefits, saying Parker violated a state law and an amendment to the Texas Constitution that prohibited same-sex marriage or any action recognizing a same-sex union.
While an appeal from Houston was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its June 2015 opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges that overturned state bans on gay marriage, prompting the appeals court to lift the injunction.
Justice Jeffrey Boyd, writing on behalf of the court in a 24-page opinion, said there’s still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
“We agree with the Mayor [of Houston] that any effort to resolve whether and the extent to which the Constitution requires states or cities to provide tax-funded benefits to same-sex couples without considering Obergefell would simply be erroneous,” Boyd wrote.“On the other hand, we agree… that the Supreme Court did not address and resolve that specific issue in Obergefell.”
But the state’s highest civil court reversed course in January after receiving an outpouring of letters opposing the decision. They also faced pressure from Texas GOP leadership — spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrickand Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who asked the court to clarify that Obergefell does not include a “command” to public employers regarding employee benefits.
That request to the court came more than a year after state agencies moved to extend benefits to spouses of married gay and lesbian employees just days after the high court’s ruling. As of Aug. 31, 584 same-sex spouses had enrolled in insurance plans — including health, dental or life insurance — subsidized by the state, according to a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System, which oversees benefits for state employees.
Though the Texas Supreme Court contends the 2015 Obergefell decision has nothing to say about the legal benefits that naturally emerge from marriage, the truth is the federal precedent explicitly protects those rights. The high court reaffirmed as much this week in the aforementioned Pavan v. Smith decision. In that decision, the majority said in part:
As this Court explained in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Constitution entitles same-sex couples to civil marriage “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” In the decision below, the Arkansas Supreme Court considered the effect of that holding on the State’s rules governing the issuance of birth certificates. When a married woman gives birth in Arkansas, state law generally requires the name of the mother’s male spouse to appear on the child’s birth certificate—regardless of his biological relationship to the child. According to the court below, however, Arkansas need not extend that rule to similarly situated same-sex couples: The State need not, in other words, issue birth certificates including the female spouses of women who give birth in the State. Because that differential treatment infringes Obergefell’s commitment to provide same-sex couples “the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage,” we reverse the state court’s judgment.
The “constellation of benefits” reference is a direct quote from Justice Kennedy’s key statement about spousal benefits in the Obergefell decision:
There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle. Yet by virtue of their exclusion from that institution, same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage. This harm results in more than just material burdens. Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives. As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society. Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.
Expect this case to make a swift journey through the federal courts.