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Texas Supreme Court to Decide Whether Same-Sex Spouses Are Entitled to Benefits

Traditionally, marriage is about romantic concepts like love and companionship. But it also has a practical component, such as employee benefits eligibility. Same-sex couples across the country won the right to marry as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. However, the practical benefits of same-sex marriage are under fire in Texas and the Texas Supreme Court could limit same-sex couples’ right to spousal benefits.

In 2013, same-sex marriages were not allowed in Texas, but the city of Houston granted spousal employee benefits to employees who married same-sex partners in other states. Two taxpayers sued the city, claiming their tax dollars should not pay for same-sex spouses’ benefits. When the Obergefell ruling was announced, the appellate court held that it was bound by the decision and ruled for the city. However, the taxpayers have appealed to the Texas Supreme Court with the support of Texas’ governor and attorney general.

The argument the petitioners make is that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry, but the U.S. Constitution does not require employers to offer benefits to same-sex spouses. They argue that marriage may have been declared a fundamental right, but spousal benefits were not.

If the petitioners are successful and the Texas Supreme Court rules that Obergefell is limited only to granting same-sex couples the right to marry, not to the practical benefits that traditionally come with marriage, then opponents of same-sex marriage across the country, including some employers, may look for ways to narrow the rights of same-sex spouses and  to limit employee benefits to those spouses. Employers who previously did not provide benefits for same-sex spouses will wait to see whether they are eventually allowed to return to those policies.

The case is Pidgeon v Turner, Texas Supreme Court number 15-0688.

© 2020 BARNES & THORNBURG LLPNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 26

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About this Author

Douglas Oldham Labor and Employment Law Attorney Barnes Thornburg Law Firm
Of Counsel

Douglas M. Oldham is of counsel in the Columbus and Chicago offices of Barnes & Thornburg LLP and a member of the firm’s Labor and Employment Law Department.

Mr. Oldham has represented employers in employment discrimination litigation since entering the firm in 2004. He has accumulated significant labor and employment litigation experience throughout that time, including:

  • briefing numerous successful motions for summary judgment and motions to dismiss, as well as copious nondispositive motions, in federal...

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