Texas Supreme Court overturns trial court ruling, denies same sex-couples equal state benefits

By Elizabeth Alt | Jul 26, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline) – The Texas Supreme Court recently affirmed a temporary injunction that prevented the City of Houston from furnishing benefits to the same-sex spouses of its employees.

The court on June 30 ruled unanimously that the Constitution does not clearly require states to give spousal benefits to same-sex couples. A lower court will now decide whether it does and how a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision applies.

In 2013, Houston residents Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks disputed then-Mayor Annise Parker’s mandate to extend benefits to government employees’ same-sex spouses who’d been legally married. Pidgeon argued that it would expend significant public funds on what they claimed was an illegal activity. 

Pidgeon and Hicks said they are devout Christians and have suffered injuries due to their beliefs that homosexual relationships are immoral and sinful.

Parker was Houston's first openly gay mayor and erected the benefits policy after a Houston city attorney told her the Texas law prohibiting same-sex couples from receiving such benefits may be unconstitutional. 

This was following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the federal same-sex marriage ban. (When Parker left office, current Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stepped in as the defendant.)

The trial court denied the city of Houston’s and Parker’s pleas, and issued a temporary injunction blocking them from furnishing same-sex spousal benefits.

While the case was pending in the state Court of Appeals in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in Obergefell v. Hodges. The appellate court reversed the temporary injunction and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. Pidgeon and Hicks appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

Judge Jeffrey Boyd noted in the Supreme Court opinion that it had originally declined to hear the case, but conceded after pressure from numerous amicus curiae briefs urging it to consider the case.

The justices stated that the appellate court did not err in reversing the temporary injunction and remanding to trial court as Parker argued, but agreed with Pidgeon that a court ruling in De Leon v. Perry, which permanently enjoined the state of Texas from enforcing any laws prohibiting any same-sex marriage, does not bind the trial court in this case and the court of appeals should not have instructed the trial court to conduct further proceedings “consistent with” De Leon.

Boyd stated, “The trial court should certainly proceed on remand 'in light of' De Leon, but it is not required to proceed consistent with it.”

The Supreme Court held that Obergefell did not command that all states provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons, and it did not hold that the Texas marriage statutes are unconstitutional.

The case was remanded back to trial court, and the Supreme Court declined requests to render a final ruling on the merits before the parties have had a full opportunity to make their case.

The appellate court did not err by failing to affirm the temporary injunction “to the extent” it required the City to claw back payments made prior to Obergefel, the Supreme Court ruled.

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