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Marriage Equality

Judge Blocks Houston Benefits for Same-Sex Spouses, City Fights Back

Judge Blocks Houston Benefits for Same-Sex Spouses, City Fights Back

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Houston officials will appeal a judge's order blocking the city from offering benefits to employees' same-sex spouses.

A state-level judge in Houston has ordered that the city cease offering benefits to employees' same-sex spouses, but city officials plan an immediate appeal that will leave the benefits in place while a lawsuit challenging them continues.

The order, issued Wednesday by State District Judge Lisa Millard, is the latest chapter in a lengthy and complicated saga regarding partner benefits for city employees. An amendment to the city charter, approved by voters in 2001, prohibits the city from offering benefits "to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children."

But in same-sex couples who are legally married, those spouses qualify as legal spouses, Mayor Annise Parker noted last November in announcing an executive order that makes health and life insurance benefits available to same-sex spouses of city workers. Parker and city attorney David Feldman cited the June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Defense of Marriage Act and allowed the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages. The officials also said they believe Texas's ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution.

There are three lawsuits pending over the benefits, reports the Houston Chronicle. After Parker's announcement, conservative activist Jared Woodfill quickly filed suit in state court, which led to Judge Millard issuing an order blocking the benefits, but it was lifted in January after the case was moved to federal court (later, it was moved back to state court). City employees who had been denied benefits sued in federal court, and a federal judge ruled that the city can continue offering the benefits pending a U.S. Court of Appeals decision on the constitutionality of Texas's marriage ban. Woodfill filed another state-level suit challenging the benefits last week, leading to Millard's Wednesday order.

Mayor Parker's staff said the city is preparing an immediate appeal, and Millard's order will be stayed once it's filed. "As a result, today's action will have no impact on the status quo," city spokeswoman Janice Evans told the Chronicle Wednesday.

City employee Noel Freeman, who married partner Brad Pritchett in August in Washington, D.C., and signed up for spousal benefits for Pritchett just this month, spoke to Houston TV station KTRK about the importance of the benefits. "It was just about being able to provide for my family the way my coworkers do," Freeman said, noting that Pritchett has not had insurance coverage in the 12 years they've been together. Spousal benefits and marriage recognition, he said, are "a basic issue of fairness." Watch the report below.

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