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Supreme Court Lets Stand Texas Ruling That Could Undermine Marriage Equality

Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a Texas Supreme Court ruling that said the right to marry did not mean same-sex couples also had the right to spousal benefits.

The Texas court made its ruling last June in a case involving the city of Houston, which was sued by a coalition of conservatives to block a plan put forth in 2013 to offer spousal benefits to municipal employees in same-sex marriages. A local court ruled against the city, but an appeals court ruled in its favor, leading the coalition to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling did not necessarily mean government entities must provide equal benefits to all couples. It sent the case back to the Harris County District Court in Houston to decide this question.

The Texas high court had initially been reluctant to take the case, but decided to do so under pressure from Republican officials and antigay activists, including the Texas governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.

Houston appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which today rejected the case without comment, the Austin American-Statesman reports. This lets the Texas ruling stand, and the Harris County court will consider the matter. The high court does not usually comment when rejecting an appeal.

Jonathan Saenz, the anti-LGBT activist and lawyer representing those challenging the benefits, praised today’s action. “What an incredible early Christmas present from the U. S. Supreme Court,” said Saenz, president of Texas Values, according to the American-Statesman. “Mayor Annise Parker defied the law by providing spousal benefits to same-sex couples at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in Texas, and we intend hold the city accountable for Parker’s lawless actions and her unauthorized expenditures of taxpayer money.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, denounced the rejection of the case. “With all eyes on tomorrow’s oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop religious exemptions case, the Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples,” she said in a press release. “Today’s abnegation by the nation’s highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step.”

There was also this statement from the Democratic National Committee: “SCOTUS’s decision in this case upholds discrimination and opens legal avenues for those who want to chip away at LGBTQ equality. Through legislation or through the courts, this disgraceful decision by the Texas Supreme Court must be overturned. Democrats will continue to fight tooth-and-nail for LGBTQ equality in Texas and around the world.”

Two LGBT-focused legal groups, GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, issued a reminder not to give up: "This case is not over. It will now return to the Texas trial court for a final decision. It was an uphill battle to persuade the Supreme Court to grant review at this juncture because of the court’s firm rule about taking cases only after a final judgment even where, as we noted in our friend of the court brief, a lower court ruling is subverting an important federal policy. We hope and expect the Texas trial court, on remand, will uphold spousal benefits for employees married to a person of the same sex, as Obergefell and common sense require."  

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