Judge blocks same-sex city benefits, for now

Nov. 5, 2014Houston Chronicle

A state district judge on Wednesday ordered the city of Houston to stop offering health and life insurance benefits to the same-sex spouses of married employees, but city attorneys say they plan an immediate appeal that, once filed, could leave the benefits in place.

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. It would be a liability for the city to enforce an unconstitutional ban on such benefits, she said, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

Parker’s policy change spurred three lawsuits, including two from conservatives, who argued the policy change violates Houston’s city charter, the state’s Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas Constitution.

State District Judge Lisa Millard 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.

Legal proceedings

In August, a federal judge moved the proceedings back to state court, saying she did not have jurisdiction, but said “the substantive issues are likely to be decided, in a federal forum, regardless of this remand.”

The second lawsuit, filed by employees whose benefits were denied by the restraining order, led to a U.S. district judge leaving the benefits in place pending a ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional; a federal judge in San Antonio ruled that law unconstitutional in February.

Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist who filed the first lawsuit against the city, filed another lawsuit last week, again asking Millard to stop Parker from issuing benefits to same-sex couples. As she did in January, Millard agreed to issue a temporary injunction Wednesday.

Conservative remarks

“I am very proud to see a judge upholding the law and respecting the will of the people,” Woodfill said. “Unfortunately, we have a mayor whose personal agenda trumps the will of the people and ignores the Texas Constitution and the Texas Defense of Marriage Act.”

A spokeswoman for Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, said the city is preparing an immediate appeal that would result in the federal court ruling taking precedence.

“As a result,” city spokeswoman Janice Evans said, “today’s action will have no impact on the status quo.”