Texas Supreme Court Ruling Revives Attacks on Same-Sex Marriage

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June 30, 2017

The Texas Supreme Court today defied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges which ushered in the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide, saying it leaves open questions whether Texas municipalities must extend access to spousal benefits including health insurance to the legal same-sex spouses of municipal employees in the same way it does for other married employees.

The ruling revives a case that was dead and sends it back to the trial court to give the parties another chance to attack the marriage of same-sex couples.

Today’s ruling, in the case Pidgeon v. Turner, also flies in the face of the Supreme Court summary reversal on Monday of an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling, in Pavan v. Smith, stating explicitly that states may not treat same-sex married couples differently than other married couples. 

Pidgeon v. Turner, originally filed in late 2013 as Pidgeon v. Parker, challenged then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s announcement that the city would begin offering health insurance and other benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees.

In its ruling, the Texas Supreme Court writes: “But Obergefell is not the end either. Already, the Supreme Court has taken one opportunity to address Obergefell’s impact on an issue it did not address in Obergefell, and there will undoubtedly be others.”

Based on this clearly erroneous reading of both Obergefell and Pavan, the Texas Court continued, “Pidgeon and the Mayor, like many other litigants throughout the country, must now assist the courts in fully exploring Obergefell’s reach and ramifications, and are entitled to the opportunity to do so.”

“This absurd contortion of the Obergefell ruling defies all logic and reason, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s explicit ruling on Monday that marriage is marriage and equal is equal. We will take steps to protect these families."
—  Kenneth D. Upton, Jr., Lambda Legal Senior Counsel

“This absurd contortion of the Obergefell ruling defies all logic and reason, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s explicit ruling on Monday that marriage is marriage and equal is equal. We will take steps to protect these families,” said Kenneth D. Upton, Jr., Senior Counsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas. “The Court was very clear in the majority opinion about the scope of what marriage entails.”

“This decision is political and is an example of why elected judges are bad for LGBT people and bad for judicial independence,” added Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Director at Lambda Legal.

As detailed in Obergefell:

“Indeed, while the States are in general free to vary the benefits they confer on all married couples, they have throughout our history made marriage the basis for an expanding list of governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities. These aspects of marital status include: taxation; inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession; spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decisionmaking authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers’ compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rules…

The States have contributed to the fundamental character of the marriage right by placing that institution at the center of so many facets of the legal and social order. 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.”

On Monday the Court reiterated the breadth of the Obergefell ruling:

“As we explained [in Obergefell], a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’ Indeed, in listing those terms and conditions — the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities’ to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access — we expressly identified ‘birth and death certificates.’ That was no accident…”

“Similarly the original decision in Obergefell listed health insurance,” Upton added.

Upton said Lambda Legal plans to work with City of Houston attorneys on next steps.

“This naked attempt to undermine Obergefell and relegate married lesbian, gay, and bisexual public employees to second-class status cannot be allowed to stand,” Upton said.


Pidgeon’s journey to the Texas Supreme Court began in late 2013 when two Houston taxpayers – Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks – sued Mayor Parker and the City of Houston after city officials determined that an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling, U.S. v. Windsor, striking down part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), required that benefits be equally available to the legal different-sex or same-sex spouses of city employees.

A Texas state district judge initially ruled in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks, but the Texas 14th Court of Appeals overturned that decision in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling.

Pidgeon and Hicks then petitioned the Texas Supreme Court for review, which initially declined to hear the case. However, after a concerted campaign lead by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Court reversed itself and agreed to hear the case. That hearing took place on March 1, 2017.

Lambda Legal, joined by GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders, National Center for Lesbian Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Texas Supreme Court in the case, urging the court to apply the Obergefell as the U.S. Supreme Court clearly meant it to be applied.