The Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments today in a case where Houston taxpayers sued urging that subsidizing employment benefits for the spouse of a same-sex couple is illegal. Lawyers for the taxpayers describe the case as “the only one of its kind in the nation.”
They argued that the scope of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 gay marriage decision is open for debate and urge that the opinion “did not specifically rule on the issue of insurance benefits.”
“Protecting taxpayer’s right to not be forced to fund same-sex benefits with tax dollars,” is why they filed the lawsuit, they say.
Those defending the City of Houston contend that the U.S. Supreme Court decision answered every question in the case now before the Texas Supreme Court.
The plaintiff taxpayers sued to prevent cities like Houston from granting employee benefits to same-sex couples who were married in a state that recognized gay marriage when Texas law had a constitutional provision against it. The lawsuit was filed before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion granting same-sex marriage rights in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Jonathan Mitchell, a former law clerk for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued the case before the state’s highest court on Wednesday. Mitchell has also served as a Texas solicitor general.
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, and former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, represented taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks against the City of Houston and its first openly gay mayor Annise Parker.
The district court granted a temporary injunction blocking the city from distributing the spousal benefits but the intermediate appellate court reversed the trial court’s injunction. Obergefell was issued prior to the hearing at the appellate court and was cited by the court when it reversed the injunction.
The taxpayers maintain there is no “fundamental right” for married couples to receive taxpayer-funded benefits or subsidies.
They also ask the Texas Supreme Court to instruct state courts to narrowly construe the Obergefell same-sex marriage ruling because the U.S. Supreme Court decision has no legal basis in the Constitution. Moreover, the ruling should be narrowly construed because it threatens the religious freedom of those who oppose homosexual behavior, they say.
The Supreme Court of Texas had initially declined to hear the case but reversed itself in late January after the taxpayers filed a motion for rehearing, reported Breitbart Texas. The Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction to hear cases.
As reported by Breitbart Texas, the taxpayers filed a motion for rehearing with the Texas Supreme Court asking them to reconsider their order denying review of the case. They urged that Mayor Annise Parker violated the Texas Constitution and state statutes when she gave spousal benefits to gay employees in 2013 and 2014. Parker issued these benefits to employees prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling. The decision by the Texas Supreme Court at that point to not review the lower court’s decision left in place a ruling that cities cannot deprive married same-sex couples the benefits it provides to opposite-sex couples.
Justice John Devine dissented from the court’s decision to not hear the case, as reported by Breitbart Texas. “Marriage is a fundamental right. Spousal benefits are not,” he wrote in his dissent. Devine added, “Thus, the two issues are distinct, with sharply contrasting standards for review.” “(C)laims by same-sex spouses of City employees to employment benefits do not enjoy the benefit of strict scrutiny,” he wrote.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and a very large contingent of Texas state senators and representatives and other Texas conservatives, filed friend of the court briefs supporting the petitioner plaintiffs.
An opinion from the Supreme Court is not expected for months.