Interpreting the Supreme Court’s two-year-old decision in favor of same-sex marriage as settling only one thing — a basic right to marry, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Justices left open a wide array of questions about what public benefits go with such marriages.
The state court, Texas’s highest court for civil cases, ordered a lower state court to decide whether gays and lesbians who work for the city of Houston and were married in other states to their partners are constitutionally entitled to benefits for their spouses.
Two city taxpayers in Houston sued three years ago to stop such benefits because, they contend, as devout Christians they regard homosexuality as a sin and do not want to subsidize such relationships. The city and its mayor are defending a decision to provide such benefits.
Since a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled in 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have an equal constitutional right, across the nation, to get married, the Justices have made only one follow-up decision on what that means for equal access to benefits provided by government.
In fact, that decision was issued just last Monday in an Arkansas case, declaring that a married lesbian couple has a right to have the name of both women listed as parents on the birth certificate of a child born to one of them. On Tuesday, the Justices agreed to explore the benefits question further, agreeing to decide in a Colorado case whether a state may constitutionally use its civil rights law to force a bakery to provide a cake for a gay wedding, when the baker has a religious objection to doing so.
The Texas state court mentioned both of those actions in footnotes, but it remarked that the willingness to take on the wedding cake case showed that neither one of the Justices’ rulings so far on same-sex marriage “provides the final word” on the “tangential question” of access to government benefits usually provided to married couples.
City officials started making married employee benefits available to gay and lesbian employees’ spouses in 2013, after the Supreme Court that year struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act barring a wide array of federal benefits to couples whose same-sex marriages were legal in their home states. That ruling split the Justices 5-to-4, in the case of United States v. Windsor.
A federal appeals court later relied on the Windsor decision to bar enforcement of several state laws in Texas that denied state government marital benefits to same-sex couples, and those benefits have continued to be provided since then. However, in the new Texas Supreme Court ruling, that tribunal ruled that the appeals court ruling was not binding in Texas state courts on the constitutional issue at stake in the Houston city benefits case.
After reaching that conclusion, the Texas court then moved on to assess the scope of the right to marry as recognized by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015. That decision, the opinion declared, “did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons” and did not rule, as the appeals court had, that the Texas law against such benefits was unconstitutional.
The state court declined, at this point, to rule itself on the just how far the Obergefell decision might reach on equal access to marital benefits, choosing to send that question to lower state courts. That issue had not been fully briefed as this case had reached the state’s highest court, it noted, so each side should have the opportunity to contest it in the next round in lower courts.
The court refused explicitly to instruct the lower courts on how they should interpret the Obergefell decision as it may – or may not – apply to access to public benefits.
There is a long tradition in U.S. constitutional law that state courts, like the federal courts, have the authority to rule on questions that arise under the national Constitution. But any such decision by a state court is subject to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That option thus appears to be open to the city of Houston and its mayor.
Friday’s ruling, in the case of Pidgeon v. Mayor and City of Houston, apparently had the unanimous support of the nine-member state Supreme Court. It was written by Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd.