Something troubling just happened at the U.S. Supreme Court today. Our country’s highest court has let stand a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that says gay couples are not entitled to the same spousal employee insurance benefits as heterosexual couples. The initial case was an attempt by Texas conservatives to explore the limits of gay marriage following the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 gay marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges.
The Texas court basically found that while gay marriage is now the law of the land in all states, that doesn’t necessarily entitle gay couples to the same benefits of marriage as hetero couples, particularly pointing to someone’s ability to receive insurance through their partner’s employment.
A short history of this Texas Supreme Court marriage case
In 2013, while Annise Parker, an out lesbian, was mayor of Houston, she offered employee benefits to same-sex spouses, causing gay marriage opponents to sue. While that case was going through the state court system, Obergefell (the U.S. Supreme Court case making gay marriage the law of the land) happened. That led the 14th Court of Appeals to allow the same-sex spousal benefits, under the argument that Obergefell had settled it. Even the Texas Supreme Court agreed, rejecting the case when it came to it in September 2016.
But (there’s always a “but,” you know) …
One thing you should understand about Texas Supreme Court justices is that they are elected, not given lifetime appointments. So when gay marriage opponents came out of the woodwork, threatening to vote the all-Republican court off the bench if it didn’t reconsider its decision — their argument being this was a great opportunity to restrict the effects of Obergefell — the Texas court took note. The Texas Supreme Court even admitted it only took up the case after receiving “emails, letters and postcards” from individual citizens.
So the Texas Supreme Court took back its rejection of the case and eventually ruled that there is no established right to spousal benefits. The lawsuit was then forced to go back to the Houston District Court to determine that issue — whether Obergefell applies to spousal benefits for gays.
While it’s a shame that the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t knock down the Texas Supreme Court ruling today, this is hardly over.
The case will now return to the Houston District Court, and the issue of whether the spouses of gays and lesbians must be afforded employment benefits will go through the court system on its own merits, potentially ending up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court once more.
The Texas Supreme Court marriage case is merely a setback
It was June of this year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 against an Arkansas law forbidding same-sex couples from being listed on a child’s birth certificate. And that was despite a dissent from Trump’s most recently appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The high court ruled that states must give same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples or else the state would be giving same-sex couples “disparate treatment,” something forbidden under Obergefell.
Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will hear opening arguments on a case that will decide whether businesses can refuse services to same-sex couples, pitting anti-discrimination protections against religious free-speech exceptions. We know how Gorsuch will rule, but here’s hoping the high court does the right thing as a whole.
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