Judge halts same-sex benefits in Houston after GOP chair files lawsuit

Judge halts same-sex benefits in Houston after GOP chair files lawsuit

HOUSTON — A Harris County, Texas, judge issued an order Tuesday blocking the city of Houston from providing benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees pending a hearing in January.

State District Judge Lisa Millard issued the order in response to a lawsuit filed by Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill, on behalf of plaintiffs Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks. The order from Millard, a Republican, says the city must stop providing the benefits pending a hearing on Jan. 6.

APAnnise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Pidgeon and Hicks, who are Houston taxpayers and registered voters, brought the suit in response to Mayor Annise Parker’s decision in November to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees who are legally married in other states. The plaintiffs allege that Parker’s decision violated the Houston city charter, the state Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas Constitution.

“Plaintiffs’ claims of statutory and constitutional injury and violation of the City of Houston’s Charter, present a substantial threat that irreparable injury would result if the temporary restraining order does not issue,” Judge Millard wrote.

Janice Evans-Davis, a spokeswoman for Parker, said Tuesday night she was not aware of the order.

“In the event an order was issued today, the city will seek its immediate reversal,” Evans-Davis said.

Shortly after being re-elected to her third and final term, Parker, an out lesbian, announced in November that the city was extending health and life insurance benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees who are legally married in other states. The decision was based on Feldman’s interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling striking down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, as well as case law from the around the country.

“Based on the right to equal protection under the law, it is unconstitutional for the city to continue to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of our employees who are legally married,” Parker said at the time. “This change is not only the legal thing to do, it is the right, just and fair thing to do.”

In 2001, Houston voters approved a charter amendment banning domestic partner benefits. The amendment states, “Except as required by State or Federal law, the City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.”

Parker and Feldman say the amendment allows benefits for legal spouses.

In 2003, the Texas Legislature passed the state’s DOMA, which amended the Family Code to say that same-sex marriages are void in the state and no agency or political subdivision may give effect to them. In 2005, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman and barring the state or any political subdivision from creating or recognizing “any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”

Houston joined other cities including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio in offering benefits to same-sex partners in Texas. However, Houston is the only city with a charter amendment prohibiting domestic partner benefits, which is why Parker and Feldman based the policy on recognition of marriages from other states.

The Houston GLBT Political Caucus issued a statement late Tuesday calling the lawsuit part of the Harris County GOP’s “malicious assault on equality for LGBT Texans.”

“The Harris County GOP doesn’t care how many hundreds of thousands of taxpayers dollars are wasted on this frivolous lawsuit.” said Caucus President Noel Freeman. “Heading into an election year, this isn’t about marriage or taxpayer funding of benefits, it’s about turning out social conservative voters.”

According to the caucus, Woodfill is up against a popular, well-funded opponent in the March primary. Millard is also up for re-election.

Freeman, a city employee, is one of only three who’ve signed up for the benefits, the caucus’ statement said. The judge’s order means their spouses will be unable to schedule doctor visits or have prescriptions filled. If they have received care since the benefits took effect Nov. 20, they may be forced to pay the full cost, even though the employees paid spousal premiums.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that simply being a taxpayer does not grant standing to sue elected officials.” Freeman said. “We believe this case will ultimately be dismissed for a lack of standing in accordance with established case law.”

Attached are copies of the lawsuit and the order, which were provided by Woodfill to Quorum Report.

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