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U.S. Supreme Court to City of Houston employees: Not today!

It's been more than two years since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision affirming the right to same-sex marriage, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that nobody is eager to weigh in on whether or not Houston can legally provide benefits for the spouses of gay and lesbian city employees. The Texas Supreme Court tried to avoid the case earlier this year, and on Monday, even the U.S. Supreme Court chose to dodge the question, for now.

This all started in 2013 when then-mayor Annise Parker decided to extend benefits to city employees with same-sex partners who had been legally married in other states (since you still couldn't have such a marriage in Texas at the time). A pair of local conservatives, Larry Hicks and Pastor Jack Pidgeon, contended this was a waste of taxpayer money and filed a lawsuit.

The conservatives won the initial court fight, but in 2015, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which gave same-sex couples the right to marry, an appeals court judge tossed the case out entirely. But that wasn't the end of it, of course. 

The justices on the state high court declined to hear an appeal on the case in late 2016, but caved in after Gov. Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick and state Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton all filed amicus briefs with the court asking the justices to review it.

When the Texas Supreme Court actually reviewed the case last June, they threw out a lower court ruling that had sided with Houston, ordering the lower court to hold a new trial. They concluded that Obergefell may have granted the right for same-sex marriage, but the federal decision “did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.” Lawyers representing Houston appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Many hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would weigh in and settle the question for the city once and for all, but the nine stayed out of it and did not elaborate on their reasons for doing so. The rejection issued on Monday came without any dissent or comment from the justices.

The silence of the U.S. Supreme Court justices has given both sides reason to claim the non-decision as a victory of sorts. Those who oppose gay marriage are crowing that the high court is deliberately opting not to expand the rights spelled out in Obergefell. At the same time, those who are in favor of Houston providing benefits for the spouses of gay and lesbian employees have pointed out that the Supreme Court's one-line rejection only means the court is not willing to hear the case right now. 

Meanwhile, Houston has continued to allow benefits for the spouses of gay city employees, including health and life insurance. The city will continue to do so as the case winds its way through the lower courts in the state, Mayor Sylvester Turner has repeatedly stated. 

The case will go to a state court where the question of providing benefits will be reviewed. If the state court decides to side against Houston, the benefits could be revoked, a move that would almost certainly lead back to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

But all of that is a long way off. At this point, only one thing is clear: The U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately be involved with figuring out who is right on this point, but they are not touching it as of now.

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