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January 9, 2014

Update: Lambda Legal Says Same-Sex Couples Must Be Included in Case Deciding Fate of Spousal Benefits

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor struck down the part of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal recognition to same-sex couples legally married in a state that permitted it. But a number of states, including Texas, have their own state laws or constitutional amendments similarly prohibiting state recognition of same-sex couples' marriages.

After Windsor, Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker requested a legal opinion from the Houston City Attorney concerning whether, given the Windsor decision, the City could continue to deny benefits covering same-sex spouses of employees who have been legally married outside of Texas. Under the Houston Charter she is obligated to provide equal compensation and benefits to all City employees and their legal spouses. The Houston City Attorney said the City could not, consistent with the Windsor decision, continue to deny benefits covering same-sex spouses of City employees who legally married in another jurisdiction. So on November 20, 2013, the Mayor directed the City to afford employment benefits on an equal basis to all legally married City employees, including its married lesbian and gay employees. 

Nearly a month later, two taxpayers, with the backing of an anti-gay group, “Family Values,” filed a secret lawsuit under cover of gathering darkness in a family law court in Houston seeking to block the Mayor and City of Houston from continuing to provide equal employment benefits to lesbian and gay employees. They obtained, after hours, an “emergency” Order against Mayor Parker and the City without reasonable notice to the City and the Mayor. Faced with that Order, the City sent a notice to employees who had enrolled for the benefits, including our clients, informing them that the spousal benefits they had purchased and were relying upon were subject to being interrupted and terminated. Lambda Legal filed its own lawsuit against the City and the Mayor on behalf of the employees who were threatened with suddenly losing their benefits.

Some have asked why we would sue the Mayor and the City, when they have taken the correct position and done the right thing. The law is peculiar that way. The Mayor and the City face the threat that antigay activists will obtain a court order forcing employees to lose valuable benefits – employees who are not even part of that lawsuit. The best counter punch in this situation is for those employees – real people who also pay taxes and stand to be harmed by the antigay taxpayers’ conduct – to seek an order against the Mayor and the City to order them not to do that.

To be sure, we stand with the Mayor’s decision. If a court were to order her to terminate spousal coverage from lesbian and gay City employees—while leaving family coverage intact for non-gay City employees with a legally recognized spouse—she would deny lesbian and gay employees, such as our clients, equal compensation for equal work and discriminatorily inflict upon each of them and their spouses anxiety, stress, risk of untreated or inadequately treated health problems, and potentially ruinous financial burdens. The Mayor knows this is wrong, both legally and morally, and we seek a court order that will reinforce her and the City’s decision to do the right thing and insulate them from other inconsistent orders. In other words, we are suing the mayor in order to compel her to do that which she wants to do. Counterintuitive, we know, but we are confident that this is what the mayor would want.

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