Gay marriages: Texas Conservative
attempts to overturn
full marriage equality in the state.
2017-MAR to JUL
Before mid-2015, marriages throughout Texas were only available to opposite-sex couples. Elsewhere in the U.S., battles were being fought in various state and federal courts that eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on 2015-JUN-26. This involved the famous case, Obergefell v. Hodges. The decision legalized gay marriage in Texas and across the U.S. 1 However, the country's fourth largest city, Houston, TX, 2 had earlier passed an ordinance that granted spousal benefits to its same-sex couples even though such couples were unable to marry in the state. These benefits were identical to those that had been long given by the city to its opposite-sex married couples.
A group of religious and social conservatives launched a lawsuit in 2013 to deny Houston's spousal benefit ordinance to same-sex couples, and to once more make the benefits only available to opposite-sex married couples. During 2016, the nine-member Texas Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the case, thus leaving the city's spousal benefit in place.
Governor Greg Abbott (R), Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R), supported by other state lawmakers, some conservative religious leaders and social activists, filed additional briefs with the state Supreme Court. Petitioners were Houston taxpayers Pastor Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks who claimed that they had standing to initiate the case because their taxes had increased after the state granted equality to all couples. They asked that the Texas Supreme Court reconsider its earlier decision. The case is Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks v. Mayor Sylvester Turner and City of Houston (15-0688). In an unusual move, the court agreed to review their earlier decision. They scheduled a hearing for 2017-MAR-01.
Jonathan Mitchell, is a law professor at Stanford Law School. He was is a former law clerk for the late U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. From 2010 to 2015, he was the Solicitor General for the State of Texas. He addressed the Court on behalf of the plaintiffs. He acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized marriage for same-sex couples in in-2015. But he attempted to make the case that taxpayer-funded spousal benefits by federal, state, or city governments are not a basic right of marriage. Thus, he maintained that Houston did not need to treat same-sex couples as equivalent to opposite-sex couples in its employee benefits. He concluded that:
"The meaning and scope of Obergefell remain open to debate."
Mitchell further argued that religious freedom and liberty were involved in the case. He is apparently not referring to the traditional aspects of religious freedom: freedom of belief, freedom of assembly with like believers, the freedom to proselytize, etc. The groups and individuals that he was representing feel that the Court should defend religious liberty by restricting other people's freedoms and equality, including reinstating state laws that had severely restricted women's access to abortions in the state, denying equality in spousal benefits, etc. Religious conservatives in the U.S. generally oppose access to abortion by women as well as access to marriage by same-sex couples.
Lawyer Douglas W. Alexander addressed the Court on behalf of the City of Houston. He agreed that spousal benefits are not a fundamental right of marriage. However, he interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling as meaning that all marriages -- whether opposite-sex or same-sex -- are to be considered equal. Thus, he concluded, that if Houston were to offer spousal benefits to opposite-sex couples, they must treat same-sex couples in the same way. He said:
"Obergefell [v. Hodges] answers every question in this case."
After the hearing:
- Jared Woodfill, who is a conservative activist involved in the case, said that he hopes that this case before the Texas Supreme Court will be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That would give the High Court the opportunity to rule on what he called the state's "invalid expansion" of the Court's 2015 decision to include equality of workplace benefits.
- The office of Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner, issued a statement saying that the city:
"... is confident that the Texas Supreme Court will follow its practice of requiring strict compliance with decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court."
- Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, a conservative non-profit, said:
"There is no fundamental rights to same-sex benefits under Obergefell."
The state Supreme Court ruling was not expected for several months. 3,4
Reaction by Mark Joseph Stern of Slate -- "... a general-interest publication offering analysis and commentary about politics, news, business, technology, and culture":
"If you’re prone to nostalgia, Wednesday’s arguments may evoke a certain wistfulness, a fond remembrance of the days when state officials appeared before judges to insist that gay people do not really deserve the equal protection of the laws. If you’re prone to inquietude, on the other hand, I have good news: A majority of the court appeared apprehensive about rolling back marriage equality. It’s possible that the justices could defy the U.S. Supreme Court and permit Texas to treat same-sex couples unequally. But it seems far more likely that they will dodge the key question in the case and dismiss the whole piteous affair on procedural grounds. ..."
"[Plaintiffs] Pidgeon and Hicks assert that, in fact, neither Windsor nor Obergefell rendered the Texas ban unenforceable. As a result, when Houston provides benefits to same-sex couples, it is spending taxpayer money illegally and in violation of ... [the plaintiffs'] religious beliefs. As taxpayers and 'religious conscientious objectors' to same-sex marriage, Pidgeon and Hicks insist that they have standing to challenge Houston’s policy in court. And they want the Texas Supreme Court to hold that the state ban on spousal benefits is totally constitutional under Obergefell -- thus rendering the Houston policy unlawful.
2017-JUN-30: Texas Supreme Court issues a ruling on benefits for employees in same-sex marriages:
The highest state court in Texas issued its ruling in an unanimous decision. They overturned the lower court's decision that favored equal employee benefits for all married couples: whether of the same-sex or opposite-sex. This was a surprise ruling, because:
- The Obergefell ruling in mid-2015 by the U.S. Supreme Court had stated very clearly that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed all married couples "equal dignity in the eyes of the law." They can only have equal dignity if they receive equal treatment.
- The Texas Supreme Court made a complete reversal. Earlier, the judges had refused to even review a lower court ruling granting gay couples equal rights. This time, they ruled unanimously that gay couples should not have equal rights.
Kenneth Upton Jr., a Dallas-based attorney at Lambda Legal -- a major LGBT equal rights group, said:
"Marriage is marriage and equal is equal. We will take steps to protect these families." 8
Jared Woodfill, described by Time magazine as "a conservative activist at the center of the case" described the court decision as a major victory for states' rights and religious rights. The "religious rights" that he is describing is the religious freedom to discriminate against minorities on the basis of their sexual orientation.
He noted that, during 2005, shortly after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage, Texas voters approved a gay-marriage ban. Woodfill said that:
"From time immemorial, family law has been left to the states." 8
That is not entirely accurate. For example, in the case Loving v. Virginia during 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an almost identical ruling to Obergefell. The main difference was that it guaranteed the right of interracial couples to marry instead of same-sex couples. Both the Loving and Obergefell decisions were based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states:
"No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." 9
Mayor Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) said:
"The City of Houston will continue to be an inclusive city that respects the legal marriages of all employees. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and everyone is entitled to the full benefits of marriage, regardless of the gender of their spouse."
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of GLAAD, another of the main national LGBT rights groups, referred to the court ruling as a:
"... warning shot to all LGBTQ Americans that the war on marriage equality is ever-evolving, and anti-LGBTQ activists will do anything possible to discriminate against our families."
Related essays on this web site that you might find interesting:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
The main paths by which you may have arrived here:
- The only exception was the American Samoa where same-sex couples are still not able to marry as of early 2017.
- "Largest cities in the United States by population," Ballotpedia, at: https://ballotpedia.org/
- Andrea Zelinski, "Texas Supreme Court hears Houston same-sex benefits case," Houston Chronicle, 2017-MAR-01, at: http://www.yourconroenews.com/
- "Taxpayers to Court: Uphold Rule of Law on Marriage," Texas Values, 2017-MAR-01, at: http://txvalues.org/
- Mark Joseph Stern, "Is same-sex marriage safe?" Slate, 2017-MAAR-01, at: http://www.slate.com/
- © Creative commons stockphotos from Dreamstime Stock Photos
- Some of the briefs to the Texas Supreme Court in this case from:
- Jim Ventuno, "Gay Spouses May Not Be Entitled to Workplace Benefits in Texas," Time Magazine, 2017-JUL-01, at: http://time.com/
- "Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, and Same-Sex Marriage," Insights on Law & Society, Volume 17, Issue 2, at: https://www.americanbar.org/
Copyright © 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-JUL-10
Author: B.A. Robinson