The Texas Supreme Court on Friday threw out a lower court ruling that said spouses of gay and lesbian public employees are entitled to government-subsidized same-sex marriage benefits. The state’s highest civil court ordered a trial court to reconsider the case.
As part of a case challenging Houston’s benefits policy, the Supreme Court suggested a landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage does not fully address the right to marriage benefits. Justice Jeffrey Boyd, writing on behalf of the court in a 24-page opinion, said there’s still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
“We agree with the Mayor [of Houston] that any effort to resolve whether and the extent to which the Constitution requires states or cities to provide tax-funded benefits to same-sex couples without considering Obergefell would simply be erroneous,” Boyd wrote.“On the other hand, we agree… that the Supreme Court did not address and resolve that specific issue in Obergefell.”
During a March hearing, Douglas Alexander, the lawyer who defended Houston’s benefits policy, told the court that the case was moot under Obergefell’s guarantee that all marriages be equally regarded.
Jonathan Mitchell, the former solicitor general for the state and the lawyer representing opponents of the Houston policy, argued that marriage benefits are not a fundamental right and that Obergefell did not resolve questions surrounding such policies.
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with that argument, noting that Obergefell requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages in the same manner as opposite-sex marriages but did not hold that “states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.”
That does not mean Houston can “constitutionally deny benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses,” the court added, but the issue must now be resolved “in light of Obergefell.”
The Texas Supreme Court’s decision does not outright declare that [the plaintiffs] should win this case, but it does keep their suit alive by claiming that Obergefell left open an unresolved question.
“The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages,” according to Justice Jeffrey Boyd’s opinion, “but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.”
Texas’ highest civil court claims, in other words, that despite the Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples,” a state may be permitted to give same-sex couples a piece of paper declaring them married while denying them the actual legal benefits of marriage.
After reaching this dubious conclusion, the Texas court plays coy, saying that it is merely sending the case back down to a lower court in order to resolve a supposedly open question. “Of course, that does not mean that the Texas DOMAs are constitutional or that the City may constitutionally deny benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses,” Justice Boyd writes.
One of the plaintiffs in this case, Boyd continues, “contends that neither the Constitution nor Obergefell requires citizens to support same-sex marriages with their tax dollars, but he has not yet had the opportunity to make his case. And the Mayor has not yet had the opportunity to oppose it. Both are entitled to a full and fair opportunity to litigate their positions on remand.”
Such a decision makes no sense if you understand the Texas Supreme Court as a court that is trying to resolve legal cases in a timely and efficient manner — but it does make perfect sense if you understand its justices as political actors.
The only way one can reach this conclusion is if one believes there is such a thing as “gay marriage” and “straight marriage”, and that the two are fundamentally different, with the former deserving less respect than the latter. The only way to begin down the path towards that conclusion is to start from a point of antipathy towards same-sex couples, and more broadly towards LGBTQ people. This is exactly what the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell addressed. Everything about this is so much sophist bullshit. It’s wrong, it’s completely out of touch with public opinion, and it’s shameful in a way that I have a hard time finding words for. Mayor Turner’s statement, which reaffirms the city’s commitment to marriage equality, is here, and the Chron, the Statesman, the Current, the Press, Daily Kos, and the DMN have more.