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Federal judge refuses to halt same-sex benefits for Houston city employees

Federal judge refuses to halt same-sex benefits for Houston city employees

HOUSTON — The same-sex spouses of Houston city employees will keep their benefits for now, after a federal judge on Thursday denied a request for a restraining order that would have halted them.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal considered the request after the case was moved from state court to federal court by the defendants — Mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston.

Harris County GOP Chair Jared Woodfill, on behalf of taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, sued Parker and the city in December after she extended benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees who are legally married in other states.

State District Judge Lisa Millard, a Republican, issued a restraining order halting the benefits, before the city moved the case to federal court, where Woodfill sought another restraining order. Following a lengthy hearing on Thursday afternoon in Houston, Rosenthal denied the request.

“It was a big win today,” said Lambda Legal’s Ken Upton, who attended the hearing. “The judge demonstrated to us that she’s not inclined to do kneejerk things like were happening in state court.”

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Upton represents gay city employees who are plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit seeking to preserve the benefits. Upton said at today’s hearing, Rosenthal asked him to submit a brief in the next week about whether he thinks the two cases should be combined.

Upton said Woodfill’s lawsuit, known as Pidgeon v. Parker, will remain in federal court for now. The judge did not rule on Woodfill’s request to remand the case to state court, but she did lay out a briefing schedule before the next scheduled hearing in late February. Although today was a victory, Upton said his clients remain in limbo.

“They’ve won today, but only to come back again,” he said. “At some point the thing they face is the lack of being able to do any planning, because they don’t know if tomorrow they’re going to lose their benefits.”

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