Married same-sex couples will continue to receive health and life insurance benefits from the city of Houston, a federal judge ruled Friday, pending the outcome of an appeal in a separate lawsuit.
Days after being elected to her third and final term last November, Mayor Annise Parker announced Houston would extend employment benefits to the spouses of all married employees, gay or straight.
Relying on a legal opinion from City Attorney David Feldman, Parker said it would be a liability for the city to enforce an unconstitutional ban on such benefits following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
Parker’s policy change spurred two lawsuits.
The first lawsuit came from conservatives, who argued the policy change violates Houston’s city charter, the state’s Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas Constitution. A state district judge quickly signed an order preventing the city from offering the benefits, but that order was lifted in January after the city moved the case to federal court. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal moved the proceedings back to state court, saying she did not have jurisdiction over the case, but adding that “the substantive issues are likely to be decided, in a federal forum, regardless of this remand.”
The second lawsuit came from city employees whose benefits were denied by the temporary restraining order. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake on Friday granted the plaintiffs’ motion to leave Houston’s same-sex benefits in place pending a ruling from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on whether Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional. A federal judge in San Antonio in February ruled the law unconstitutional.
Feldman and Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, argue the state’s ban is superseded by the recent federal actions related to same-sex benefits.
The Friday court ruling allowing Parker’s policy change to stand, at least temporarily, means same-sex marriages conducted in any jurisdiction where the act is legal, including foreign countries, 17 states and the District of Columbia, are recognized for the purpose of extending city employment benefits.